Communication Devotional, The “Magic Bullet” Theory of Communication, by Donna Elkins

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The “Magic Bullet” Theory of Communication?

May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like gentle rain upon the tender grass, and like showers upon the herb.  Deuteronomy 32: 2 (NIV)

Being a teacher is an intimidating role. Too often inexperienced teachers think the “magic bullet” theory applies to their teaching work.

The “magic bullet” or “hypodermic needle” theory does not sound very appealing, but many people communicate from a place of believing this theory.  It is one of the first and most well-known mass communication theories. Around the time that TV became popular, scholars feared that those who heard mass messages from the media would change behavior and beliefs based on those messages.[1]  The theory earned its name because it envisioned that the message would be transferred directly and inserted into the head of the audience members who would be unable to resist it.

The reality was that messages, no matter how convincing they may be, do not have such a direct effect on their hearers. Instead the reactions from hearers is much more limited. Any teacher who has spent an hour talking students through how to do a math equation and asks them to do it on a test the next day can attest to the reality of limited effects theory rather than magic bullet theory.

However, for a long time we continued to teach as if opening our students’ heads and pouring in information was the way to prepare them for the future. If you are working with children, teenagers, or even adults to teach them something new, the prayer from Deuteronomy 32:2 is one you may want to pray regularly. Because what we now know is that learning is a slow process that involves not only taking in new information, but also being reminded many times, interweaving the new knowledge with things we already know, and sometimes just sitting or practicing with it a bit.

This new understanding that information does not come to us in a magic bullet or a hypodermic needle model has been commonly referred to in college teaching circles as transforming from “sage on the stage to guide on the side.”[2]  This understanding of a teacher as facilitating and providing time and interaction with new knowledge rather than simply imparting information can be helpful to all communication practice.

Let your communication fall like rain and distill like dew, gently covering the tender grass over time, rather than expecting it to take immediate effect.

Reflection: Think about the last time you learned something new. How long did it take you to feel truly incorporate that knowledge into your life? How many times did you have to read it, hear it, or use it before you felt confident you had learned?

Today’s Challenge: Choose at least one conversation this week where you are attempting to teach someone something or share new information with them. Stop and think about how you might communicate this information if you realized the other individual would not immediately get this transfer, but would need time and repetition and maybe opportunities to practice before truly learning.

Donna M. Elkins, Campbellsville University




[2] King, A. (Winter 1993) From sage on the stage to guide on the side.  College Teaching, 41(1), 30-35.


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