The risks of using standardized text modules as communication vehicles

  • 1. Introduction: The fundamental problem of mass communication
  • 2. The text-module paradigm and its problems
  • 3. Linguistic communication: A catalogue of misconceptions
  • 4. What does it mean for a text to be “comprehensible”?
  • 5. The hierarchy of levels of comprehensibility
  • 6. The goal of professional writing: convincing the addressee
  • 7. Linguistic communication in complex social systems
  • 8. Communication management: What for?
  • 9. Can the automation-comprehensibility dilemma be solved technologically?

Introduction: The fundamental problem of mass communication

In most companies and administrations nowadays, written mass communication is made possible by the use of so-called “text modules”. These are frequently used texts or text parts such as salutations, as well as thematic parts such as the introduction to an answer to complaints or information about reimbursement rates in private health insurance. Written, edited and saved electronically only once, they are then combined into whole texts “by hand”. Often, if they fit the communicative purpose, whole sets of text modules are retrieved, for example, in the case of answers to certain complaints.

Mass communication means that a text is intended to be read by many or all members of a group of addressees. Such is the case of general terms of insurance, which are transmitted to everyone who takes out an insurance contract. The text may be revised from time to time, for instance when the legal situation changes. However, it will never address specific aspects of a particular contract. This is impossible due to the very nature of the text, which has been conceived for all potential addressees. The opposite case is that of a text sent to a specific individual on a specific occasion, such as a letter written to a friend on his retirement. This text cannot be sent to another person, or twice to one and the same person.

The core of the problem treated in this chapter is how to strike a happy mean between these extremes, that is, how to draft a text for mass communication in such a way as to make it intelligible for individual addressees. This problem comes close to that of squaring the circle. It cannot be solved by single measures, such as revising some of the texts saved, since these texts are also subject to changes concerning the circle of addressees, the starting points and the relevant facts. Perhaps paradoxically, the solution must be sought in the organization of mass communication, not from a technical, but from a media-related point of view.

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