The Hidden Ways You Communicate Are Shaping What People Think

Len WilsonChurch, Leadership, Marketing, Semiotics, Strategic ThinkingLeave a Comment

Welcome to my updated blog, rebuilt by my friends at We will be making some tweaks and upgrades as we go along in the coming months. I am excited about the relaunch. To catch you up, if you’re interested: This blog has been quiet for a while. The main reason is that I have been in a doctoral program at George Fox University. My doctoral track at Portland Seminary, George Fox University, is called “Semiotics and Future Studies” and my mentor is Leonard Sweet. He’s been the primary theoretical mentor of my professional life. Course work finishes next month, and I have half the dissertation drafted, so it’s time to start sharing some of the ideas I’ve been collecting. This is the first in a series of short posts about what I’ve been thinking about.

When I tell people I am studying semiotics, they do a double take. What is that?

Semiotics has been an esoteric, academic term for concepts I’ve been talking about on this blog and in my books and workshops for years. The word is worthy of wider distribution. What does it mean?

Semiotics is a word for the exchange at the heart of all human communication.

I’m often asked about best practices for “brand messaging.” Consider a question I often ask pastors and church leaders I consult with: Show me an image of a disciple at your church. 

This is both surprisingly hard and revealing. It should be easy, right? Your church should have dozens or even hundreds of good examples. But it opens up a set of questions: what are the implications of naming someone in particular? Perhaps they’re still working on some things in their life. If you say they’re a disciple, will you attach meanings you don’t want to attach to that person? 

Thinking about the relationship of a word, an image, and a set of meanings is semiotics. What is commonly referred to as “messaging” is actually semiotics. Semiotics is the theory and practice of understanding all of the variables of communication, but particularly the way in which meaning is formed from the various perspectives of those involved in that communication. 

Technically, it is the study of signs and symbols and the varieties of interpretation they elicit.  But it is more than just that. It is the acknowledgement that our message doesn’t just travel in a pure state from our mind to someone’s ear. Instead, our message – our ideas – are sent in a contextual environment and they’re sent full of code words and images that impact how it’s received and understood.

Semiotics is more than just a technique for better preaching or increased ROI on your marketing. It’s at the core of the exchange of ideas that occurs between human beings, every day, thousands of times a day. If we don’t think about the ways in which people receive our efforts to preach, teach, and communicate the gospel, then it’s safe to say the effectiveness of these efforts is greatly diminished. We need to pay attention to the whole process of communication.

I’ve been writing about this concept for years – for example in this post about the reason your kids are bored at school and you don’t remember last Sunday’s sermon – but what has changed for me is the mind-blowing realization of how deep this goes in shaping our very sense of reality, and how little we even acknowledge it in the work of the church.

There are several variables to consider in how a message gets interpreted. I’ll name them here, and perhaps expand on them later. This applies to any kind of communication, from brand messaging to preaching or teaching or even sales and marketing. 

We need a Semiotic Method for Communication.

This means we need to develop a more holistic approach to thinking about what happens when we talk to or share something with another person. A Semiotic Method includes awareness of and intentionality about six components of communication:

  • Self Awareness
  • Message Awareness
  • Receiver Awareness
  • Culture Awareness
  • Context Awareness
  • Code Awareness

Once we have this, we will be able to know ourselves (our “brand”) and our congregations well, and communicate publicly in ways that matter.

This list first appeared at


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Len Wilson

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