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A Brief Introduction to Multimodal Communication

Roy K. Humble / 10 July 2020

This is Part 1 of a four-part series on Multimodal Communication that's intended as a supplement to The Humble Argument. This articles provides a general introduction to Multimodal Communication and its terminology. Part 2 introduces the central concepts and terminology of multimodal communication. Part 3 provides an overview of the general multimodal expectations that college professors have for college papers. Part 4 wraps things up with more specific guidelines for different academic disciplines and some help with using visual elements within your college papers.

What is Multimodal Communication?

The short answer is that multimodal communication is how you present ideas to others (communication) in more than one (multi) way (mode, modal, modality — take your pick) in the same text or presentation. The long answer is the rest of this four-part series of articles.

Multimodal communication is nothing new for you. Remember when you were two? Of course you don't, but your caregivers will happily tell you that when you were two, you screamed and kicked the sides of your crib because your binky had fallen onto the floor after you threw it. That was you being multimodal. You communicated the idea that you would like to have your binky back by screaming "Binky! BINKY!" (one mode) and kicking the sides of your crib (another mode) at the same time. You were within your rights, too, because it was, after all, that was the kitty binky that your Aunt Clara gave you.

Years later, when Aunt Clara's actual cat died, you sent her this multimodal card:

A multimodal sympathy card on the death of a cat

Remember when that happened?

Your thoughtful card was multimodal communication because it expressed your sympathy with words (one mode) and the picture of a rare cat that has miraculously gone to heaven (a second mode).

Almost all the communication you send and receive is also multimodal because it communicates in more than one way at the same time. Internet memes, for example, combine images (one mode) and words (another mode) in a single text that really makes you stop and think, like this:

An image of a dollar tree.

Web pages combine images (mode), words (mode), visual organization (mode), and sometimes sounds (mode) and videos (mode) at the same time. Like this:

A website homepage consisting of images, headings, and text on a grid system.
The homepage for ifixit.com, which is a great resource for when you drop your phone.

In college, you're not likely to communicate by kicking and screaming or by sending cat cards to your professors or by generating your own memes. That's because most of your college-level multimodal communication is created in response to assignments from your professors. Those assignments require you to explore new topics, gather new information, and think for yourself. They usually require you to follow precise instructions for how to present your ideas.

One final product might be a short presentation to your class, for example.

A woman gives a presentation with visual aids.

Your presentation will use a lot of different modes. You'll explain your ideas with words (mode), use a visual aid to illustrate your ideas (mode), and use hand gestures and smile and make meaningful eye contact (mode).

In a writing class, your papers use written words as the main mode of communication, but they are also formatted for easier reading and may include illustrations to help explain your ideas, and those visual elements are a second mode of communication.

A student essay that uses MLA formatting
This student essay follows MLA formatting guidelines so that it's easier to read and looks like it was written by a smart person.

Even in college, then, multimodal communication is nothing new. What's new is just that you are being asked to step back and examine what you're already doing so that you can learn how to do it more effectively.

Why Should You Study Multimodal Communication?

There are several good reasons for you to study multimodal communication and learn how to make it work for you.

Because They're Making You

The first and most immediate reason is that the English department has made multimodal communication a part of your required writing class, so learning this is the only way you're going to get through this writing class with a passing grade. That's not the best reason for learning it, I admit, but it's the reason that's staring you in the face.

There are better reasons, however.

Because It Helps You Protect Your Brain from Dubious Ideas

A better reason to learn the basics of multimodal communication is that it helps you to examine the ideas that want into your brain. You're bombarded by ideas day and night, and the advertising industry is particularly good at dressing up questionable ideas by combining different modes of communication. Here's one example:

An ad from PETA that promotes veganism with a photo of a bodybuilder and the words "Killer Body. Clear Conscience."
This ad from peta.org uses a compelling image and unsupported reasons to make its case for trying out veganism.

The text of message is clear enough. You should try veganism because it will give you a clear conscience and a killer body. Those words are one mode. The image seems to back this up because here's a vegan with a killer body. That's a second, visual mode. And see how it uses that blue color to emphasis "killer body"? That's also a visual mode trick.

If you just look at the text, you can see that the advertiser has given you no real evidence for either reason to try veganism. Will you really have a clear conscience from not eating animals? Maybe. Will you really get a killer body by not eating animals? No. Sugar isn't an animal, and if you keep eating all those donuts, you aren't going to have a killer body. Also, let's be honest. You don't get abs like this from any kind of diet. You get them from doing 500 sit-ups every morning, or so I've read.

However, if you enjoy the image of this particular killer body, and if tuck that image away in your brain, there's a good chance that this dubious idea will tag along and also find its way into your brain.

Understanding multimodal communication helps you to step back from messages like this and examine them more closely before you let them into your brain. It allows you to appreciate the image without accepting the idea until you've tested it with more research — or even a little common sense. It might be a good idea to become a vegan, but "killer body" might not be the best reason for it. (And is it just me, or is there something weird about using the word "killer" in an argument for veganism?)

Because It Improves The Effectiveness of Your Presentations

Learning the basics of multimodal communication — and especially the basics of how to make the most of the visual mode — quickly translates into more effective presentations. This will prove especially valuable in your other-than-writing classes and as you make your way into the professional world. That's where the presentations happen. Learning the basics of multimodal communication helps you improve how to present yourself, how to use sound to highlight important ideas, and how to design more effective visual aids, like this PowerPoint slide:

An attractively formatted PowerPoint Slide with a single image of Steve Jobs and a single quotation about Apple.
A PowerPoint slide with a single image of Steve Jobs touching his beard. From www.slidecow.com/powerpoint-tutorials/dgps-episode-2-quote-ft-steve-jobs/

And not like this one:

An unattractively formatted PowerPoint Slide with three small images of Steve Jobs and a single quotation about Apple.
The ugly font and small, unengaging images make this PowerPoint slide less focused. It also comes from www.slidecow.com/powerpoint-tutorials/dgps-episode-2-quote-ft-steve-jobs/

And especially not like this non-Steve Jobs slide:

An unreadable PowerPoint slide made up of text and garish yellow and black boxes

You might be asking yourself, "If class presentations are so multimodal, shouldn't I be learning this from a speech class instead of a writing class?" That's an excellent question.

Multimodal communication is more relevant to a public or interpersonal communication class. It's more relevant to film and design classes, too. But this is higher education, student writer, and high education has reasons of its own for moving multimodal communication into the English department. The English department is bigger.

Because It Improves the Effectiveness of Your Writing

Although multimodal communication may have greater application outside of college writing, it still applies to college and professional writing in two important ways.

First, visual elements within a paper can often present information more effectively than a strict diet of words. Tables, for example, present broad ranges of information quickly and show readers how similar sets of information compare to each other. Just look at how much information is packed into this table about the representation of black students and faculty in higher education:

A table of representation of black students and faculty in higher educations.
The visual layout of this information makes it much easier to understand and use. This illustration comes from www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/julian/toda-02.html

Think of how long it would take you to present this information in sentences and paragraphs. Charts, pictures, and other illustrations also present information clearly and efficiently for readers. Headings and subheadings help readers see how groups of information help to explain your idea. The more you are able to use visual design and informational graphics to present information visually, the more effective your papers become.

Second, your written work will also be judged by how good it looks as a piece of writing. And "how good it looks" doesn't mean how pretty is, either. "Good" means how well the paper satisfies the visual expectations of your formal readers.

Every academic discipline has its own rules for how to handle outside information and how to format finished papers. Those rules tell you what kind of paper to use (white), what font to use, what margins to use, how to do page numbers, and more. If your paper follows those rules, it will look like every other paper in that discipline. That gives you credibility in the eyes of your professor before a single word has been read.

Imagine you're a professor and you get this paper from a student:

A student essay formatted with MLA guidelines

Set that next to a paper that looks like this:

A poorly formatted sample essay

Even though both papers use the same words to explain the the same main, the difference in appearance tells the professor that the first one is the better paper. The first one uses the expected, conventional formatting for a literature paper. This student clearly knows how the game is played, so he or she has more credibility. The second one uses some elements of the expected formatting, but this time the student has chosen to make the paper stand out by using a handwriting font and red ink. This student doesn't know how the game is played and loses credibility before a single word has been read.

We like to think we don't judge a book by its cover or a person by their appearance, but we all do. Admit it. And it's the same with your professors and the papers they read for a living. They like to think that they judge your papers by the ideas within, but appearance really does matter. It communicates levels of competence.

So Now What?

So now, if you're not interested in learning anything more about multimodal communication and how to improve your multimodal skills, then you're done! Get out of here. Go enjoy other pursuits. We'll see you next term.

However, if you're the thoughtful person that you seem to be and are now ready to move learn more and improve your multimodal skills, then the rest of this guide will get you started. The next step is an introduction to the vocabulary that scholars use to talk about multimodal communication. After that, we'll take a nice, long look at how to write the multimodal college paper.

This discussion continues in Part 2 of this series, "The Terminology of Multimodal Communication."