Madeira August 2015

How do people communicate when they travel abroad?

How to decode messages with the Lasswell formula


Most people remember Harold Lasswell for the phrase:
»Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?«

But who was Lasswell? What kind of man was he and what influenced his thinking? What lessons can be learned from his ideas?

Lasswell was a communication expert who studied power relations and behaviour in society. He authored many books on topics such as personal security and political propaganda. Primarily he was concerned with mass communication. His ideas intended to elicit deeper analysis of media influences and effects on audiences.

Realise that knowledge is more effective in action

»Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?«

Lasswell’s great question helps to structure the process of communication. A message travels from sender to receiver. Who refers to the person who formulates a message. What points to the content of the message. The channel states the medium of transmission. Whom describes the recipient. And the effect refers to the outcome of the message and to the feedback received.

Take for example this blog entry.

Who? – The text is written by me.
What? – A text on communication theory.
Channel? – The internet.
Whom? – You, the reader.
Effect? – Influencing decisions.

Lasswell published the question in 1948. Prior to that he conducted extensive research in Europe, particularly in Germany. He studied the work of Sigmund Freud in Berlin which influenced his studies.

Use your knowledge to influence decisions

Lasswell’s question can easily be applied to intercultural communication. How do people communicate when they travel abroad – verbally and non-verbally? How much time do they spent consciously thinking about how to formulate a message effectively? What clothes are they wearing and how might their appearance be perceived?

The answers to these questions are the result of decisions about the image they want to project. This encompasses personality, perspectives and values. Decision-making processes can be influenced by communicating more consciously. And Lasswell’s question might be helpful for decoding messages.

Open your mind to different problem-solving methods

Lasswell was teaching during his entire career. He was a professor and visiting lecturer at campuses throughout the world. Later he became a consultant to many government agencies in the United States.

In a lecture at the University of California he said: »Don’t waste your time overspecializing on one single intellectual model or one single technique of dealing with problems.« He suggested to open one’s mind to the whole range of observational procedures for examining a situation.

Communication does not happen in a vacuum

The world is viewed through one’s own lens and shaped by many individual filters. These cultural filters influence who communicates with whom and what is being communicated. The environment and conditions leading to communication are important variables as well.

Which type of messages stick in any given cultural framework? How do these messages resonate with the intended audience?

Everything starts with a question

Wherever you go in the world, most conversations start with a question: How are you? Where do you come from? What can I do for you?

As I like to start any communication with a question, I’ve utilised the classic Lasswell phrase for the navigation architecture of my website – WHO – WHY – WHAT – WHOM – WHERE.

How would you utilise Lasswell’s question »Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?«
Could it be useful for decoding messages in your everyday communication?

Text: Jan-Christoph Daniel

Feel free to leave a comment or contact me at



Harold Lasswell speaking at the University of California on May 13, 1970
From the archives of the UCLA Communications Studies Department.

Gabriel Almond (1987). Harold Dwight Lasswell 1902—1978. A Biographical Memoir
PDF version can be downloaded for free at the National Academy of Sciences.

Pamela Shoemaker (2004). How to build social science theories.

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