E-Mail, Phone, or Face-to-Face?


Micheal Selleck

4/13/2009

Have you ever sent out a one paragraph informational e-mail, that literally took less than one minute to write, and then spent hours clarifying to recipients what you meant?  So much for time-saving digital communications!

The ease of quickly broadcasting information electronically, whether through e-mail, IM, chats, or any of the host of social networks that are open to the world these days, has brought us into a modern era of possibility that didn’t exist just a few years ago.  We are more aware of events, happenings, developments, threats, and possibilities around the world, than ever before. In fact we have developed the ability to communicate information with blazing speeds at the cost of our ability to comprehend and grasp that information!  Amid this nearly instant potential it would be wise to give pause and make sure information is being handled as well as possible.  As in the example above, it’s not just a matter of saving time, but also important in regards to attitudes, morale, and networks of vital relationships.

There are four commonly noted components in communication; the messenger, the message, the receiver, and the feedback.  Within these parts is a wide range of opportunity to become enlightened or confused, energized or frustrated.  This is especially true if you permit that up to 70 percent of what is communicated in a conversation is supposedly non-verbal; body movement, facial expression, eye contact (or none), and other cues that accompany what is said.  There is also a suggestion that somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent of what is communicated in a conversation is tone of voice, pitch and pace.  It’s not hard to believe that actual words in a normal conversation may only communicate as little as 5 percent of the intended message.  There is an old adage that suggests 80 percent of sharing an idea is in the presentation, not the content.  The actual percentages of all this isn’t as important as the basic thought; sharing information is at times, more complex than simply spewing out necessary particulars and pushing the ‘send’ button.

The issue I’d like to examine specifically is when to choose between using e-mail, the phone, or meet face-to-face.  These three methods have become the standards for managing day-to-day relationships.  A few rules to help know which vehicle is best for a given message may go a long way to helping all of us be better and more helpful communicators.

Reducing this task to two basic considerations may assist in wading through the task.  First is to weigh the scope and depth of a message, and secondly, choose the most appropriate method of sharing that message. 

A brief written e-mail should be limited to matters already in play between two persons. A simple transfer of details, updates, checking in, and other materials regarding what two or a few people already have between them, is where e-mail shines.  Keep messages of this type short, simple, and relevant, and things are bound to turn out nicely in most cases.

If more than a few minutes pass by in composing a multi-paragraphed e-mail, choosing words carefully and trying to say things as much as ‘not’ say other things, this should be a clear tip off that a script for a phone call is being written rather than an e-mail post. 

When a new idea is being bandied about, or a substantive change in policy or process is being proposed, e-mail doesn’t cut it.  What is written with a smile and a chuckle may, to a person receiving the e-mail, be read without so much as a snicker in mind, instead layering all manner of assumptions over things never intended by the writer.  This works the other way too, where a serious request for detailed information is dismissed as silly or treated as disingenuous.

In fact, if there is any wonderment at all as to whether an e-mail or phone call would be most appropriate, make the phone call.  Talking live to someone allows immediate resolution of any confusion and provides opportunity to bring additional information as needed to convey proper meaning to that specific listener.  Attempting to put even a modestly loaded message in e-mail form runs the significant risk that things will be misconstrued, causing havoc down the road.

Of course, if a message is going to be tricky, or profound, tender or large, consider only communicating face-to-face.  Make sure to harness all the elements for the successful transmission of important matters, (verbal, non-verbal, pace, pitch, and tone, and the overall presentation of the message,) to maximize understanding and minimize confusion.

So, if the message is small and slight, of simple structure and regards things already in play between two parties, let the e-mails begin!  If the message needs to be crafted, even a little bit, consider the phone as the best bet.  If the message is important, the face-to-face meeting is the only way to go.

I know e-mail is easy, quick, and allows the message to be ‘done with’ so it can be checked off the ‘to do’ list.  However, the very assets represented by email are also its key liabilities; email is sometimes too quick, too easy, and because it can be so swiftly misunderstood, mires us down in hours of clarification and cleaning up unintended mix-ups.


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