This is the first in a series of posts with one word titles. According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are over 600,000 English words, with new ones added each year.

Word: A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing

Any professional communicator needs to be aware of the meaning of the words they choose – and seek to understand the meaning intended in the words chosen by those with whom they communicate.

Comprehension, the ability to understand, is both vitally important, and a never ending process. It should be our basic learning outcome and the focus for continuous professional development.

We study comprehension when learning to read, or mastering another language. We question, what does this word – or digital code – mean? Semantics is at the heart of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Words are symbols, signifiers, they may be socially constructed, and have specific meaning in a particular time or place. They can be fluid and deliberately twisted. They can heal, or hurt. They are powerful things.

As a professional educator, I’m always asking students: “what do you mean?” and focus down onto individual words to clarify why it was chosen and used in a particular context. It is critical that the person assessing a student’s work understands what they mean.

This doesn’t mean a communicator has to dumb down, although simple words can communicate with great clarity. At other times, understanding particular words can be difficult, even though they are the right choice in the context. Putting in the effort to comprehend such words is essential if we are to be able to explain our thinking and arguments. I’m not talking about being pretentious or obfuscating, but simply recognising that there are less common words that have a place in the lexicon.

Understanding may require intellect, thinking and judgement. It may also occur intuitively – without much thought, when we rely on emotions, or familiarity and immediately empathise and understand.

In their paper: The role of comprehension processes in communication and persuasion (subscription or academic login required), Wyer, Jr. and Shrum focus on cognitive processes rather than literal meaning of a communication.

They consider how verbal statements (written or spoken words) can spontaneously create a mental picture, but linguistic coding of pictures requires time. That is, words can trigger immediate visualisation, but we need longer to process what we see before translating this into words. In addition, both recall of a narrative and emotional reactions are affected by the mental imagery generated by particular word choice.

Words have power in stimulating visualisation, although that means we tend to rely on heuristics (mental shortcuts) in forming understanding. In contrast, when faced with an image, we may not be able to find the words to express our understanding immediately.

We may understand that a picture paints a thousand words – but perhaps also need to consider that a thousand words (or even just one) can paint a very powerful image.

Image adapted from original via: http://dryicons.com