Communication Conundrum: Content vs. Context


It is frustrating and time-consuming when our words are misunderstood by others.

We issue a command or make a statement in haste, and we sometimes generate unnecessary emotional fallout. There’s a funny story about a newspaper journalist who wanted a photo enlargement of a famous house for a full-page spread. He called the homeowner to make the appointment and casually stated, “I just want to shoot your house and blow it up.” The homeowner, an elderly lady, wasn’t amused. The local law enforcement wasn’t laughing either. Inescapably, our message may be innocent enough, yet we’re sometimes oblivious to its impact on others. The physical, financial, and emotional costs can be huge when others take offense from our words.

Fortunately, we can do something to increase the chances of our message being understood as we intend it. It begins with a simple distinction: content vs. context.

Content is what we say; it’s our message. Context is what gives meaning to our message, or more precisely, “that which gives meaning to the text.” By setting the appropriate context, preferably ahead of time, there is a greater chance that our content will be received and understood by our listener.



Think “University meets YouTube


Consider this example: you’re in your office at 8 AM and your boss pokes her head quickly in your office and barks, “John, come to my office right away.” As you rise from your chair, you’re thinking to yourself: “The merger didn’t go well, the board is upset with the whole deal, I’m probably going to get fired.” Now, contrast this inner dialogue to one that would follow from a more conscious interaction: “Good morning, John. There were some questions from the merger conversations last night. None is a showstopper, but we need to address them today. Please come to my office right away.” Your silent response: “Whew!”

The impact of insufficient context can grow exponentially when the recipient is a large audience. We may be completely thorough in researching and preparing our content, but if our context-setting is poor, we run the risk of causing more harm than good. As discussed in more detail in the book Messages, one reason for this is that human beings need to have meaning for what they hear. If insufficient meaning is provided, then they will simply make up the meaning so that they can make sense of the message. Unfortunately, when this happens, audience members are less than perfect in coming up with the meaning that we intend. Therefore, it is incumbent on us, as speakers, to provide sufficient context such that our message is understood as we intend it.

The following metaphor is helpful: content is like a freight train, whereas context is the switching of railroad tracks to the right or left. You become a more effective speaker when you reach ahead and set the track switches appropriately so that your message arrives smoothly at your intended destination. The late Thomas Leonard summarized this important lesson with a simple statement: “Take responsibility not only for what you say but also for how people hear you.”

I invite you to examine the effectiveness of your communication. Ask those around you:

“Do I do a good job of communicating my facts? Of communicating my intent?”

Notice also how many times people do the wrong things because they misunderstand your words, and notice when your words unintentionally cause offense or ill-feelings. If your communication produces the powerful results that you desire, congratulations! If it falls short, however, then we invite you to practice your context-setting skills.

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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Gordon Taras on March 12, 2009 at 12:02 am

    Hi David,

    I agree completely though I am as challenged as the rest to comply with the punchline. Here is another version of the lesson: