Marshall McLuhan used to cite an old saying: “We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” Meaning: it’s hard to see a medium when you’re living in it; you take it for granted.
Humans live in language. It defines what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Language is the bedrock of our cultures and societies. As with fish in water, we go about our daily business without paying much attention to the language around us and how it influences us.
Over the past few years, I’ve used and adapted Neil Postman’s semantic environment framework to help me understand how language works in various contexts, make these contexts visible, and enable more effective interventions in complex situations.
What’s the purpose of the tool?
The Semantic Environment Canvas will help you understand the language, rules, and power dynamics that make it possible for people to accomplish their purposes in particular situations—or hinder them from doing so.
How does it work?
- Print out the PDF below onto a large sheet of paper you can put up on a wall. (It’s easiest if you do this exercise using sticky notes — especially if you’re collaborating with others.)
- Give the semantic environment a name. (The name should be clear, but also compelling. You want the language to come alive.)
- Think about who the actors are in the situation. These could be individuals, but they can also be roles within an organization or even groups. (More than two actors can participate in a semantic environment. For the sake of simplicity this canvas focuses only on two. You can print out additional canvases to map other relationships.)
- Consider the relative power of each actor in the situation. Are they peers, or is one actor more powerful than another? How do the actors experience their power differentials?
- Think about the actors’ goals in the situation. Why are they having this interaction? What do they expect to get out of it? How will they know when they’ve accomplished it?
- Consider the spoken and unspoken rules that constrain the situation. Are the actors expected to behave in some ways and not others? What happens when they don’t follow the rules? (Does the communication break down entirely? Or do they shift to another semantic environment?)
- Think about the key words the actors use in the situation. All semantic environments have what Postman called a technical vocabulary: words that have special meaning within this environment. Do both actors share an understanding of what these words mean?
- Consider the key touchpoints that allow the communication to happen. Do the actors meet in person? If so, do they have to be in a special physical environment? If they meet remotely, are there particular technologies involved?
If you want, you can draw arrows between the various stickies in the canvas to clarify relationships between the various words, rules, goals, and so on. Another trick is to use colored stickies to represent whether certain words, goals, rules, etc. help (green) or hinder (red) the actor’s goals.
Keep in mind that semantic environments don’t usually exist in isolation; in a single process (for example, a sales pipeline) one actor may transverse various environments as he or she interacts with other actors. Also, semantic environments can be nested: some environments contain sub-environments where language and rules become ever more specialized.
I find it especially useful to pin up multiple semantic environment maps next to each other; this can help spot situations in which the same words appear under different guises or with different meanings.
What is it good for?
Mapping the semantic environment is useful in a variety of situations that require a clear understanding of the language people use and the expectations they bring to an interaction. (In other words: always and everywhere!)
- Your team may be struggling to communicate effectively with other teams in your organization; mapping the semantic environment may lead you to discover you’re unwittingly using similar words in both teams to mean different things.
- You may be facing a difficult political environment. Mapping out the semantics of the situation can help you understand other people’s goals and trigger phrases so you can manage tensions more effectively.
- You may be designing a complex software system and need to understand how the various parties involved — including the system’s users and stakeholders — use language to accomplish their goals. This understanding can then inform the system’s conceptual models and information architecture.
Can I see an example of one?
Download the canvas
You can download the Semantic Environment Canvas here:
This is my first stab at a public release of this tool. I plan to keep evolving it; future versions will live here. I welcome your feedback; if you have thoughts or questions, please get in touch.
Also, if you and your team are facing a situation that would benefit from more clarity around language, often bringing in a third party to facilitate these mapping exercises can make all the difference. I can help.