Tips for Great Communicators: Match Medium & Method with Message

You can lack efficiency and effectiveness in how you communicate.

Communication Modalities

Communication Modes - Source Unknown (Let me know if you know)

Or you can have both. Here’s how.

As background, it always helps to be clear about what you’re trying to communicate. Simply pass on information, or engage in a discussion and check for understanding? Ask for feedback, or do a data dump and run?

Great communication starts with focus about what you’re trying to accomplish, and what you’re trying to avoid. Taking that little piece of time (something that I refer to as a pause or hitch when working with my coaching clients) will in itself make you a better communicator.

You’ve suffered from eye glaze  (like everyone else) with that long single-spaced email that ran more than 2 pages that someone sent trying to explain things. Now what were they trying to explain you asked?

Or alternately the 22 email messages back and forth between members in a group trying to peg down some relatively minor point; why can’t the group figure out something this simple.

The problem? Using a low bandwidth not-so-information-rich communication modes like email to explain something that was either lengthier or more complicated than email accommodates well. It means that the message will be poorly understood, leading to interpretation mistakes, or implementation errors. Which leads to a first guideline.

Rule #1: Use the right communicate mode for the complexity or nuances of the data

Long or complicated message? Meet in person, in person with a whiteboard, or Skype video with a shared screen. Simple and binary (yes or no)? Think texting or email.  In person, particularly live with something like a white board or even a piece of paper enables you to share complicated messages with a much higher degree of probability that the message is received and understood. One way communication like email, where you can’t check for all the data clues you get when you’re meeting in person or using a visual aid like a whiteboard or piece of paper? Pretty iffy if your goal is to be effective and understood.

When things are complex or nuanced, use communication modes that lend itself to a broader data channel. Things like in person, video chat, whiteboards. Yes or no answers or simple, briefer instructions? As the graphic (right) shows you, there’s a range of options but they correspond to richness of the data channel.

And if you are writing for the computer screen? Utilize usability wonk Jakob Nielsen’s well-researched tips for writing for the web, including a “heatmap” of what people actually see and read on a computer screen.

Rule #2: Use the right communication mode depending on the purpose of the communication

While it seems like years ago, the telephone call this September 2011 from Yahoo Board Chairman Roy Bostock that sacked then-CEO Carol Bartz was (IMHO) poor form, and not the best communication channel. While hunch is that it was an announcement and not a conversation, it was highly charged. Better for in-person, or alternately video. Bartz’ follow-up email announcing her firing was probably appropriate for email – simple, to the point, and plain information.

Years ago my then-boss Hubie McMorrow and I caught a 6:30 AM flight from San Francisco on a Saturday morning to meet individually with three different execs in Chicago to explain reorganizational changes that involved each of them. The conversation could have been done over the phone or in email, but it was potentially “charged” as in emotional, and the best data channel for that type of conversation is in person. Nobody likes spending a Saturday on a couple of long plane flights; the fact that we took the time to meet in person was highly appreciated, sent a signal to how the new organization was going to conduct business (transparent, matter of fact, straight forward) and earned tons of personal capital.

New York Times advice columnist Phillip Galanes has a great interview with NPR Fresh Air’s Terry Gross here. Galantes notes “The e-explosion has caused us to lose some of our savvy in dealing with people. [Before] we started talking to people almost exclusively on email and Twitter and Facebook … we could hear a little hitch in someone’s voice and think, ‘Oh, oh, there’s a problem. I better circle back around to that.’ So we don’t do that anymore. Everything now is type and send, type and send.”

And for those who think keeping to text keeps you safe and neutral, it doesn’t, as Jonah Lehrer show in The Science of Email.

Simple and “cool” matters? Text or email, maybe even carbon-based paper. Complicated or “hot” conversations? Use a Doodle and schedule a quick 5 minutes in person, on the phone, or in video.

The old English saying from the 17th century “A stitch in time saves nine” still works well in the 21st century. Smart effort up front, such as thinking about the purpose, the outcome you’re seeking, and the best way communication mode to use to communicate your message saves you time, increases efficiency, and makes you a more effective communicator.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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