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?

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