Each day at work I have, at my fingertips, half a dozen ways to communicate with a dozen different people. Some are down the hall. Some are across the country. And each day I use many of them—email, instant message, phone, in-person—but I use them for different things at different times in different ways. In doing so, I’ve communicated using every method for every kind of conversation: giving instructions, summarizing meetings, implementing strategies, asking questions, brainstorming, casting vision, gathering feedback, solving problems. In the process, I’ve discovered that some methods are better than others; it just depends on what I’m using it for. Finally I decided to write it down.
Below, I’ve listed many of the most common forms of communication most of us will use sometime today. And I’ve included how each one has worked best for me. I’d love to hear if you have similar practices.
Email 1.0: From your computer.
In business, email is great for summarizing a meeting. “Who’s responsible for what?” Follow up the meeting with the email. Meetings get disorderly. Summarizing action items and resolutions from a meeting ensures that everyone heard the same thing. If something wasn’t clear in the meeting, an email will either expose the open issue or clarify it.
It’s also good for following up on an known problem, but not for laying out the problem initially. That takes too much ink. If you’re explaining a problem, it’s probably convoluted—that’s why it’s a problem—and is better left to a phone call or in-person conversation.
Avoid using it for passing details like, “The project deadline just changed to Sept 15” or “What kind of sandwich should I order you for lunch?”
Best suited to: Group communication, formal memos, summaries
Avoid using it for: Explaining a problem or a procedure; project details that come and go
Email 2.0: On your smartphone.
On your phone, email is for reading, not writing. If you’re responding to emails, stick to what needs a short response. Don’t torture yourself trying to long-form it with your thumbs. If you receive an email that requires a longer response and you’re not near a computer, call them. You have a phone! Save your opposable thumbs for the important things, like golfing.
Tip: Add a signature that shows that you’re emailing from a phone. It will help your recipients understand why your response is so short. A good signature that a colleague of mine uses: “Sent from my iPhone and very likely full of typos.” A multitude of sins, covered.
Best suited to: Reading emails; Short responses; Staying up to speed
Avoid using it for: everything else
At work, IM can help keep your email box clearer. Isn’t that reason enough? If you have a simple question needing a simple answer, IM him or her. “Do I need to double-space my TPS report?” IM that. “What is the best way to handle this customer complaint?” Grab the phone or walk over.
For a little back and forth, IM is the better option than email. For a lot of back and forth, on the other hand, go for the phone. This avoids that string of emails with the same subject line, and it’s better organized.
IM is also good for impromptu group meetings. To square away some details fast, group IM works well. One caveat: Use IM with peers. Don’t IM the COO.
Be careful: Instant messaging has a more casual flavor to it than email does. So beware of that in professional settings.
Best suited to: Yes/No questions; Short back-and-forth; impromptu, time-sensitive group “meetings”
Avoid using it for: initially explaining a problem; communicating with your boss or your boss’s boss, etc.
Do you need to explain a lot of background information? Kill the email, and avoid the instant message. Go for the phone call. (Or even better, go vis-à-vis.)
Newer text-based communications get a lot of love these days, but the phone is hard to beat. It seems outdated or outmoded, but phone calls are still one of the best options for one-on-one conversations. It’s almost frictionless in terms navigating complex discussions. The voice, the intonation, and the immediate feedback really make a more personal connection too. That can be hugely meaningful.
In phone calls, people better visualize each other, and this personalizes the experience too. Don’t discount that. Personal communication like this can be really beneficial. Systems creates silos, but phone calls break down barriers.
Phone calls are best when you need to use lots of words. “What” questions are a good indication you should dial their extension. In written communication, we do a quick cost/benefit analysis between “need to know” and “how much time it will take me to type my question.” Phone calls reduce the cost.
Soapbox: Pick up the phone more often at work. It can improve coworker relationships and project efficiency. Try it a few times; it’s an acquired taste.
Best suited to: Explaining a problem; One-on-one conversations with open-ended questions; issues that require lots of backstory
Avoid using it for: Explaining a procedure: “How to . . .”
Job training is easiest in-person. Explaining how to do something over the phone can be a challenge: “Ok, so click on the button in the bottom left of your screen. Do you see the . . . ? No? Oh your computer must be different than mine. Okay, what are you looking at right now?” It just doesn’t work. When you’re both looking at the same thing, you can point and explain and gauge understanding.
Best suited to: Explaining a procedure: “how to”; sharing sensitive information, having tough conversations
Twitter put the “intercourse” into “Internet.” It really is the place of exchange for everything on the Web.
Twitter is good for promoting your brand, but not your ideas. If anyone does disagree with your 140-character summary, beware: the exchanges are horrendous. Not necessarily the content, but the organization of it. Trying to track a conversation is abysmal; every tweet response swirls off into untraceable eddies.
Best suited to: self-promotion; breaking news; links to websites, articles, videos, images
Avoid using it for: self-promotion; actual conversations
Skype is great for a scheduled meeting between two people across the country. It doesn’t gain a whole lot over a phone call, and for people who don’t know each other well, it can actually be more awkward than beneficial. The phone call is in some ways more intimate (you’re whispering in each other’s ear, after all) while also being less self-conscious.
Best suited to: familiar faces; scheduled, long-distance meetings; long-distance “how to” conversations
Avoid using it for: unfamiliar faces
Texting: Facts with Friends.
In business, the only texts I’ve received from colleagues have to do with them being out sick for the day. I think this is a good use and limit. (No more faking the flu over the phone.)
Texting is the thin ice of the communication pond. Skate at your own risk. There are no lifeguards. Texting strips away all context, and 140-characters are just enough to be misread by anyone who isn’t your BFF. The only successful social texting I’ve experienced has been with close friends who share the same outlook, humor, and life experiences—in short, a lot of already-shared context.
Texting happens primarily among friends. Because it’s so casual, it seems like it would be great socially, but not so. This makes texting an awkward bird. Instead, texting is best for relaying information like addresses, meeting times, flight info, and the like.
Paradox: Texting is super cas . . . (ual), but it’s best for facts with friends.
Best suited to: Communicating the facts to friends (and only sometimes to colleagues); play-by-play updates en-route to meeting someone
The Killer Combo: Talk and Text.
If you really want to communicate well. This is the one-two punch: an in-person meeting or a phone conversation followed by an email summary of decisions and action steps. These two methods really compliment each other. The conversation isn’t slowed down by its medium (even if the subject matter is complex or difficult), and the written summary organizes it all, helping everyone see the main points of the conversation. (They can also spot anything you accidentally left out.)
Besides being good communication, it also improves the working relationships. Summarizing your meeting tells your colleagues that you were engaged, and they will appreciate having a record for later reference. You can afford to have people like you at work.
Best suited to: Meetings with lots of project details and action items; forwarding that YouTube video you were telling them about
Avoid using it for: Personal conversations . . . you'll look Type A.
Avoid using it for: Personal conversations . . . you'll look Type A.
So have you considered how you use different communication options? Are you intentional about them?
How do you typically use the different options available to you? Have you found yourself using one kind more than others? Or do you choose based on the situation?
I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about their communication habits.