Are you a good communicator?

How can we evaluate whether we are good communicators? One way is by measuring our communication against Charles Kostelnick and David Roberts’ cognate strategies.


What are cognate strategies? Well there are nine, and although this may all be sounding rather academic, bear with me.


Cognate strategies are ways of framing, representing and expressing a message to an audience. To put it differently, cognate strategies help you get your message across. And you can use them in verbal and written communication. Cognate strategies impact on the receiver of your message, and determine the extent to which they will get your message, understand it, and then act on it.


These are the nine cognate strategies:

  1. Tone

  2. Emphasis

  3. Engagement

  4. Clarity

  5. Conciseness

  6. Arrangement

  7. Credibility

  8. Expectation

  9. Reference


I’m going to discuss what each of these mean and how they impact on your communication.


1. Tone – The feeling that comes through a communication act. The emotion that underlies your writing or speaking. Often this is all that the receiver (listener or reader) responds to, so your tone has to help get your message across, not undermine your message.


2. Emphasis – How and where you choose to draw the attention of the receiver (listener or reader). Not everything has equal importance in your message, so be sure you are emphasising what you meant to mark as important. What’s more, we love contrast, and to create contrast for your receiver you need to stress certain things while deemphasising others.


3. Engagement – You need to connect with your receiver. You need to address your receiver’s needs. You need to become receiver centric. As humans we love relationships, and communication is going to fail without a sense of a relationship.


4. Clarity – Your receiver needs to get your message quickly, easily and completely. Use short simple sentences. Use normal language. Don’t clutter your slides.


5. Conciseness – Only include what is necessary and serves your purpose. How do you know what this is? Well, mostly it is what addresses your receiver’s needs and helps bring about the outcome that you want from your communication act.


6. Arrangement – This is how you organise the information you are communicating so that your receiver gets it and gets it in the easiest way possible.


7. Credibility – This one is to do with you, the sender of the message. Are you believable? Do you have the status to be communicating what you are talking or writing about?


8. Expectation – This is about conforming to the norms of the situation and aligning with the story inside your receiver’s head. Are you being appropriate for the situation? Are you giving your receiver what they expect and in the way they expect to get it?


9. Reference – This is about referencing other sources to build you credibility, and it is also about situating your message within the frame of reference of your receiver.



These nine strategies are useful in themselves, but where it becomes really interesting is to consider how they layer onto Aristotle’s rhetorical proofs, or what are also called the three modes of persuasion: pathos, logos and ethos.


So 1 to 3 (Tone, Emphasis, Engagement) relate to pathos, which is about connecting with your receiver’s emotions.


No’s 4 to 6 (Clarity, Conciseness, Arrangement) relate to logos, which is about appealing to the logical side of your receiver.


And 7 to 9 (Credibility, Expectation, Reference) relate to ethos and the way in which people are more likely to be persuaded if they feel they can trust the source of the message.


So, for the next important email you write or the next presentation you give, think through the nine strategies and ask yourself how you are doing in each of them. If you’re doing well in all of them, you’re likely doing a good job communicating.

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