Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Schema Theory Compared to Text-Centered Theory as an Explanation for the Readers' Understanding of a Business Message

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Schema Theory Compared to Text-Centered Theory as an Explanation for the Readers' Understanding of a Business Message

Article excerpt

What constitutes effective written business communication? Of course, this is a global question that is difficult to answer. But many textbook writers implicitly answer the question when they provide prescriptions for business writing. A review of business communication textbooks indicates that most business writers consider the following qualities necessary for effective business writing: completeness, coherence, conciseness, concreteness, clarity, consideration, mechanics, and organization (Himstreet, Baty, & Lehman, 1993; Lesikar, Pettit, & Flatley, 1993; Smeltzer & Leonard, 1994). Although some textbooks will combine several of these qualities into broader classifications, these specific qualities are addressed consistently.

These qualities have been addressed in business communication textbooks for many years; however, their validity has been questioned. In a recent review of the history of business communication and the principles professed by business communication educators, Hagge (1989) said,

Perhaps even more important, do the time-worn principles of business communication really have much validity? I would argue that the very uniformity of the principles I have shown to exist through a 2000-year-old epistolographic tradition suggests that they do not. In all the sources to which I have referred in this article, not once did I find any evidence that the authors who espoused the writing principles under investigation substantiated their pronouncements with any sort of empirically verifiable or philosophically defensible framework; instead, a number of times these principles were simply validated by reference to the rhetorical tradition that spawned them. (p. 48-49)

In other words, the global question of what characteristics lead to effective business communication may have generally accepted answers, but these characteristics frequently have not been empirically tested. As a small step to empirically analyze what constitutes effective written business communication, we tested just two theoretical perspectives - schema theory and text-centered theory - on only one independent variable, reader understanding, in order to follow the rule of scientific reductionism. First, the reason is presented for selecting reader understanding as the dependent variable. Then the two competing theories are discussed.

Reader Understanding

Researchers, either explicitly or implicitly, have varying beliefs about the characteristics of good writing. The debate may have originated because different types of writing require greater or lesser emphasis on different qualities (Leonard & Gilsdorf, 1990). As examples, creativity may be highly regarded in a fictional story yet discouraged in a research report. The degree of grammatical correctness required in a business letter to a customer would not be necessary if one were writing for self-actualization. Therefore, writing qualities should be identified and discussed in terms of a specific writing context.

One test of effective business communication is reader understanding. In a list of criteria for effective messages, Locker (1992) puts at the top of her list that the writing is clear. The meaning the reader gets is the meaning the writer intended. "The reader doesn't have to guess" (Locker, 1992, p. 16). Because reader understanding is an implicit goal of business communication, we selected this attribute as the dependent variable in our study.

Schema Theory

A particularly salient theme running through much of the past 15 years of research on comprehension is the idea that a reader's mental representation is an emergent product of the interaction between text-based information and pre-existing knowledge. (Whitney, 1987, p. 300)

This theme is commonly referred to as schema theory. Anderson (1984) clarifies this when describing schema as an abstract structure which summarizes information and represents the relationship between its components. …

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