inbox

Communications 101: How to Communicate Better

This post, which is about how and why we use different tools to communicate, has been gnawing at me for a few months. In thinking of a title, I toyed with “Why E-Mail Sucks”, “The Return of Voice” and “The Devil is the Digital” but, in the end, “Communications 101″ seems most best way to describe the communications conundrum many businesses are grappling with as the world becomes less personal and more digital.

First, a little background: I work for a company, b5media, with employees scattered around the globe. We epitomize the border-less, work-anywhere corporation. We live and breath off communication tools such as Skype, e-mail, the occasional phone call, and rare (but extremely valuable) physical gatherings of the entire team. As a result, we are – for the most part – a digital communications company. This compares (contrasts?) with my own background: I’m a people-person; someone with a lot of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family. And I’m a communicator, both personally and professionally. I enjoy meeting and talking to people. If you sense there’s a bit of a difference between b5media’s communications approach and mine, you’re right. But the reality is the structure of b5media isn’t going to change. So what do you do? You adapt, you push the communications envelope by encouraging people to communicate with you in different ways, and you focus on being more effective and clear when you write e-mails, do instant-messaging and make phone calls.

Note: It’s important to be clear there is a difference between having the “gift of the gab” and communicating well. This post is driven, in part, by my personal goal to become a better communicator. Note II: I’m reading a book called “The Simplicity Survival Handbook”, which offers many tools/techniques to communicate better, including a suggestion that the key to writing shorter, better e-mails is a system called CLEAR: connected (how does it impact current projects and workload); list next steps, expectations (set ‘em), ability (how will things get done), return (what’s in it for me).

With six months of being a Digital Don Quixote behind me (tilting at thousands of e-mails and SMS messages :) ), here’s my approach on how to use different tools to communicate effectively.

In Person: By far, the most effective and powerful way to communicate. The ability to read body language, facial expressions, intonation, etc. makes person-to-person communications work and work well. It can also change the tone of a relationship. Think about how a long e-mail or phone call relationship took on a new dynamic after you met someone in person for the first time. You may never meet that person again but the relationship will always be warmer, more comfortable…and, well, better.


Phone Calls: Obviously, it’s not possible to meet every single person you do business with given the global nature of today’s working world. But a phone call can also be a very effective tool because voice carries many different messages beyond here’s what I’m saying. Voice conveys happiness, frustration, anger, exasperation, laughter, etc. Like meeting someone in person, a phone call offers an opportunity for people to offer nuances and details that are difficult, if not impossible, to do when you write an e-mail of IM. Phone calls also offer insight into someone’s personality as well as their ability to communicate on the fly. Even though Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone more than 100 years ago, it remains an amazing communications tool.

Video-Conferencing/video phones: The magic tool that could bridge in-person meetings and phone calls. Of course, we’ve been talking about video-conferencing for years without much traction happening but maybe the rise of online video will start to change things.

E-mail: The so-called “killer app” of the Web is an amazing way to communicate but it’s also a challenging medium to use effectively (It doesn’t help that bad grammar, and the use of acronyms and emoticons have become rampant within e-mail) But if if you want to send short messages, documents, photographs, music and videos, there’s no better tool than e-mail, which is why billions of them are sent every day. But there’s a danger of over-using/over-depending on e-mail. For example, there are many companies where people are e-mailing the person in the cubicle beside them!
For many people, e-mail become their default communications tool. Most people now send long e-mails rather than deliver the same message in a minute or two on the phone. Why? I’m not sure whether we’ve become lazy, or they’re far too enamored with the convenience of digital communications, or maybe e-mail lets you say what want you want without having to listen to someone else (which is not always a bad thing).

Instant-Messaging: The bastard-child of e-mail. Good for quick questions and answers but arguably little else from a corporate perspective. For teenagers, SMS is another beast entirely.

Maybe my approach to communications reflects the fact I’m not a digital child under the age of 25. Maybe I’m an analog dinosaur, desperately clinging to antiquated communication tools. But I do think digital communications is far from perfect, and people who rely extensively on e-mail and SMS today aren’t communicating as effectively as they can. Sure, they’re communicating but it’s communications-lite.

I’m certainly not suggesting we abandon e-mail and IM, which would be a big mistake because they can be valuable and extremely useful tools. But I do think that we can communicate better, and that stepping away from the keyboard is a good way to start. So rather than e-mail or IM someone, why not meet them for coffee/beer or, at least, give them a call?

This entry was posted in Main Page. Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://fitrans.blogspot.com Ryan Coleman

    Interesting post Mark…

    I think the biggest challenge isn’t so much that one method is better/more effective than the other but rather that most people a) don’t know how to use each tool effectively and b) don’t know when to move between the mediums.

    People who use the various technologies effectively can move conversations across the mediums to leverage the most effective tool for the task at hand – I’ve had numerous experiences where dialogue has evolved from an IM/chat room, moved to a phone/skype call, confirmations or information exchanged via email and finally follow up etc. via IM once again.

    As for the emailing the cubicle next to you, my partner and I are guilty of that all the time although we’re even worse for actually switching back and forth from IM/email to voice constantly during the conversation ;)

  • Neal McIntyre

    With so many communication options available these days, we often forget the value of intonation, facial gestures, and other facets of communication that some technologies simply can’t show. People often choose the wrong tool for what they’re trying to say. It hurts them and their business.
    As Marshall McLuhan said, “The Medium is the Message”.

    • Abhijay

      i think that all are the ways to to attract ourselves. Few of the things hurts but sometimes only.

  • Derek Wong

    I think email does have a unique quality among all the other media mentioned. There’s a record. It can be reviewed at any time to digest it more thoroughly. You can’t do that with in person conversation, phone, video conf, or IM.

    If I want to deliver a set of action steps, the expected deliverables, and the timing of the deliverables, I send an email. If someone else wants to tell me the same, I prefer to get it in an email.

    Also, email is automatically archived and searchable. If I get an email with the direction to your home, that’s great. Because 6 months from now, I may need this direction again. And I just need a search through my emails to get that. Another piece of incidental info from this search is the date of my first visit to your home, which may be handy at times. With all the other form of communication, this can’t be done.

  • http://socialwrite.com Jevon

    I think you are becoming more of an exception re: IM.

    I work with guys who are far older than you, but they have made the move to IM indredibly well (after a few years of fighting it). A LOT of business gets done on IM, perhaps more than people like to admit.

    Count in the BB messaging and it gets even bigger.

    So, I would challenge you to back up the “arguably” part of your statement because I don’t follow you.

    That’s not to say that in-person isn’t a hell of a lot more powerful, but I think IM has a really huge role to play still., and in comparison to SMS, IM is high-bandwidth high-emotion communication for those up-and-coming workers you mention.

  • http://www.blog-o-blog.com Zac Echola

    For internal communications, I prefer IM and email to talking over the phone or in person, not because I’m anti-social or hate meetings, but I like that there’s a thorough record that’s easily shared. A lot can get lost or forgotten without a good record.

    Granted, with email there’s always the problem of information overload when dealing with people who can’t communicate effectively through that medium.

    Even when I have conversations over the phone or in person I like to keep an audio record of it or at the very least, make a note of the date, time and purpose of the conversation. It sounds really Nixon-esque of me to do that, but it helps keep everyone on the same page and leaves very little room for misinterpretation.

  • http://weblogs.macromedia.com/jd John Dowdell

    Sorry, I feel like I missed something here… the title is “How to Communicate Better” but the bodytext seems to be “richer media offer deeper engagement, but at greater cost.”

    … ah, maybe the core idea behind the title “How to Communicate Better” is “Don’t rely just on text, but go for face-to-face too”, am I on-track now…?

    jd

  • Zian

    From personal experience, it appears that as issues get increasingly complicated, the need to have a record becomes more important because we can’t keep it all in our heads.

  • http://www.grey-consulting.com Maurene Caplan Grey

    The interaction between human and e-communications has always fascinated me. Given the topic of this blog thread — would you (the readers of this blog) mind taking a quick survey? See the bottom right at http://www.grey-consulting.com… Thanks.

    To Neal – As a fellow McLuhanite, you may be interested to read http://blogs.zdnet.com/ecommunity/index.php?paged=2.

  • Jake

    I have to say, you’re 1000% wrong on IM. I use it ever day and my group/company swears by it. The beauty of IM is that while it is ‘instant’, at the same time it is a distraction that I as an end user can control. It’s in stark contrast to the telephone, which completely breaks you out of flow and immediately stops or slows everything else you’re doing.

    It’s also the case that the people you IM with tend to be a much smaller set than the people with you mail with. At the very least, your IM list is generally a white list, rather than mail, where you can be mailed by anyone on the planet. That means there’s a lot less noise and a lot more signal with IM. If you’ve got group IM, IM can even vie with videoconferencing, which is still an immature technology as far as I’m concerned. No need to talk over each other, no need to not have everything recorded, and no dealing with jerky lag and fuzzy images.

    The biggest problem with IM is interoperability. With the exception of the Google IM solution, jabber, or a couple of other enterprise specific IM servers (IBM, I think?), there’s very little way for people on one IM system to talk to people on another IM system. Hopefully that’ll get worked out eventually, but even now, within a single organization, IM is an amazing productivity tool.

  • Pingback: Mark Evans: Communications 101 - some further thoughts on email « TechFold

  • http://www.techfold.net rod

    Mark, there are two things about email that make it key for me:

    1. Contiguous conversations discontinuously: Email let’s me have a conversation when I and the other participants want to have it. I can respond to emails when it suits me, prioritizing tasks independent of the immediacy of the medium in which they reside.
    2. Paper trail: For indexing and ass-covering, email is awesome. In my blogging, I love communicating by email because it gives me a searchable index of facts that I’ve compiled in email conversations which would otherwise be scrawled in one of my frequently lost notebooks. In my day job, I love the paper trail: it keeps everyone accountable and transparent.

  • http://commonsensepr.com Eric Eggertson

    Mark:

    Your post is consistent with a lot of the research into corporate communications methods. And, like the research, you downplay instant messaging. In addition to being regularly updated about people’s availability, IM also allows for micro-conversations that evolve from one line to the next, similar to a face-to-face conversation.

    E-mail, on the other hand, encourages people to lob ideas at each other fully formed, which doesn’t always help the listening side of communications.

    Other than that quibble, I think you’re on the right track.

  • http://emergingearth.com Mike @ Emerging Earth

    If Ustream.TV gains traction, we might actually end up with too much videoconferencing.

  • http://web-strategist.com Jeremiah Owyang

    I personaly cut out IM out of my communication mix almost completely!

    Great post, reminds me of this meme that where I asked a few friends to share their media consumption diets.

    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2007/02/22/my-media-consumption-diet/

    The thing about diets today is that many of these consumptions are done on two way tools. Just like you’ve listed above.

    Be sure to check the hundreds of people that shared

    Communication and Consumption are hand in hand, great post.

  • Pingback: Push the distributed communication envelope at NevilleHobson.com

  • Pingback: renaissance chambara | Ged Carroll » Blog Archive » Links for 2007-04-29 [My Web 2.0]

  • http://www.scrapscene.com Todd

    Nice post, Mark.

    I don’t view electronic communication as the evil that many paint it with – email has simply reduced communication to its basic level of transferring thoughts or ideas between people. There are many times a day where I would rather get the information from someone without having to judge their body language, gestures, etc. It’s the info I want, not all the extras that invariably come with personal contact.

    Now in my personal life, I DO want all the unspoken communication – I want to see the look in my wife’s eye when she talks to me (although sometimes I wish I hadn’t seen it.) That is a big part of what makes up a relationship. But, in business, when I just want the information – electronic communication is the way for me.

    Todd
    http://www.scrapscene.com

  • Pingback: Communications or communications-lite? -- Alec Saunders .LOG

  • http://www.intraskope.wordpress.com Aniisu

    Great post…

    I am writing to you from India and there are some perspectives which I percieve when it comes to leveraging new media and communication tools for effective interactions.

    It usually depends on the culture of the organization – to decide on allowing widespread usage of tools like IM and Skype. After witnessing at close quarters ( being an internal communications professional) the skepticism linked to allowing employee the freedom to use external facing tools like IM ( we used to get corporate approvals on chat!), I am quite sure it makes sense to tread this route cautiously.

    My previous organization faced numerous electronic shutdowns due to virus attacks and thereby inability to communicate real-time. My current firm weighs in at the other end of the scale – but being very risk averse. Even the CD and USB drives are deactivated considering the data protection concerns we have in outsourcing projects.

    The issue is about trusting your associates in using the available communication resources or restricting usage to minimal levels.

  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    When I first used the Internet, emailing was seen by many as a kind of entertainment and not a widespread disease.
    The main and most glorious achievement of emailing is that is killing the art of conversation.
    If we think of the type of conversation is helping to kill, our gratitude must be undying.
    The trouble is that it has not killed enough of it.
    Some of it is still alive and flourishing thanks to cell phones.
    Typical conversation:
    It struck me when I was out before supper, that the wind is going round to the south…
    Yes, definitely. What do you think?
    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    I do not like south winds. Do you?
    Oh, no Heaven forbid.
    Get a lot of south wind where you live?
    Not a lot, a fair amount. We get our fair share of south wind. You know how it is, one has to take the rough with the smooth.
    I like west winds, personally. West winds are fun.
    And so on, and so on.
    Of course I agree that sometimes the personal way is the best way to communicate.
    But it is more a matter of what you say than a matter of how.
    Stupidity and naiveté are bad in person as much as on the phone or email or whatever.

    • sudheesh zan

      Sorry Dear i can’t agree with u..
      In this world you, our fast growing world, time is money…
      Each moment pays,
      Can you think a day without Emails ???
      it will pay more..
      Of course it takes some of our good things from our lives, but it has a good side too..

  • Pingback: How to Communicate (Part II) | Mark Evans

  • Pingback: The Weekly Wrap | Mark Evans

  • Pingback: The Weekly Wrap | Mark Evans

  • Pingback: Mark Evans on Communications 101 in Today’s Digitally Enabled World : voiceontheweb.biz

  • Pingback: Blogging-Social Media Blog » All Social Media Expert are Tiger Woods??

  • Nabeel Yusuf Vallybhai

    The reason why people dont want to communicate face-to face is that they are not confident enough.Thats the only poissible reason.

  • http://www.andrewrlong.com Andrew Long

    Nabeel, you are right on — that is one reason, but I would argue not the only *possible* reason. I will admit I occasionally have found myself thinking, “It’s easier to text” or “Why can’t we just schedule this via e-mail?” Especially when coordinating with someone of the older generation — typically, they will want to speak to me, in real time, over the phone, and this is just inconvenient. Asynchronous communication offers numerous advantages.

    On the other hand, as was pointed out in the article above, and in an article I wrote on my site (http://www.andrewrlong.com/the-power-of-emotional-communication/), there is *great* power in face-to-face, and moreso than just being physically present, being emotionally and mentally present as well. It really does take some time to learn the skill of being emotionally intelligent, but it’s work that is rewarded many times over, as it allows you to improve your effectiveness as a manager, employee, and human being.

    Good discussion here and thanks Mark for a solid article.