Thanks to technology, we now have more ways to communicate than ever before. So why do we still have a problem getting our message across?
The most common problem is choosing the right medium for your message. Instead of capitalizing on technology's ability to foster closer relationships, we use technology to distance ourselves from others: leaving voicemails instead of having a conversation, sending broadcast e-mails instead of holding a meeting or posting a notice on a Web site instead of distributing the information to everyone concerned. Are you using the wrong medium for your messages?
The reason most people use the wrong medium is to avoid conflict. We don't want to get into a long discussion, so we leave a voicemail when we know someone won't be in the office. We don't want a debate, so we send a broadcast e-mail. A notice may cause dissension, so it's posted on the company's intranet, but no one's told where to find the information.
In reality, these choices lead to even greater conflict. The recipient thinks that the sender is ducking the issue. And because the issue isn't resolved quickly, there's more time for frustration and distrust to build.
Choosing the Right Medium
Before sending your next message, consider the consequences. If there's the potential for confusion, then talk face to face. If there's the possibility of conflict, then talk face to face. If there's the need for immediate feedback, then talk face to face. If there's the need for collaboration, then hold a meeting (where people can talk face to face). If distance prevents face-to-face meetings, then schedule a conference call (if possible, a video conference).
Nothing can replace a face-to-face meeting or a person-to-person phone call. When you schedule a meeting, you're sending two valuable messages. First, the subject matter is important enough that people should set aside what they're doing and focus on the issues at hand. Second, you're saying that the people involved are important and that you want to take the time to ensure you get their input.
Voicemail, e-mail and the Web are excellent tools for sharing information quickly; however, these tools shouldn't be used to resolve issues. Resolution can only be accomplished by talking directly with those involved. In an age of instant messaging and virtual meetings, a personal touch is unmatched in its effectiveness.
Don't use voicemail to level charges or express anger. Discuss any issues in person. If you decide to leave a voicemail, remember that the recipient may not be listening to your message at his desk. Speak clearly, and leave a phone number and time when you can be reached. Repeat the number so the recipient can write it down. Don't assume he has immediate access to your number or has your number memorized.
With e-mail, people can't see your face for visual cues, so you need to take extra steps to be polite. Re-read your e-mail message to make sure you have the right tone. Writing in all caps means you're shouting (not only that, "all caps" are hard to read). Don't use multiple fonts or colors, as many e-mail programs only output as straight text. If you need to emphasize text, bold it. If the e-mail is printed out, your bold text will still be visible.
Always include a clear description in the e-mail subject line. For example, "Presort Project Plan (Review by Friday, Dec. 6)." In a world where people receive hundreds of messages a day, this is an easy way for the recipient to understand the importance of your message. Blank subject lines or subject lines such as "FYI" won't help you or the recipient refer to your message at a later date.
Reply to e-mails promptly. And use "Reply to All" judiciously. Does everyone who received the original e-mail need to see your response? Keep your inbox "clean" by storing messages with the "Folders" option in your e-mail program. You don't allow paper mail to overflow your inbox, do you? If you answered "yes", then I recommend Julie Morgenstern's bestseller, Organizing from the Inside Out. This book can help anyone improve his organizational skills. Ms. Morgenstern's approach works because her system is process based, and the solutions are unique for every individual.
To reduce travel expenses, many companies have expanded the use of teleconferencing, video conferencing and Web conferencing. Again, politeness is essential to success. Give the call your full attention, and behave as if everyone is in the room with you. This isn't the time to catch up on your e-mails or surf the Web. Allow others to finish their thoughts before jumping into the conversation. And if one person has been silent too long, check to make sure that they're still on the line. Appoint someone to follow up with a brief e-mail, documenting major points and any tasks assigned during the meeting.
To be effective in any meeting, virtual or otherwise, always publish an agenda ahead of time. When the discussion strays too far from the agenda, politely return the focus to the issues at hand. Ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate. Many people are uncomfortable in groups or may be intimidated about expressing their opinions in front of a senior person. Draw them into the conversation by asking direct and open-ended questions.
Regardless of the type of communication e-mail, voicemail, teleconference or meeting politeness is the key. Everyone loves the sound of his own voice, so make sure that everyone is allowed to be heard. Listen attentively, especially if someone's opinion conflicts with your own. Learn to disagree without being disagreeable. Criticize the idea without criticizing the person who expressed it. Your tone of voice can contribute to the willingness of others to "hear you out."
The way you communicate is as important as the idea you're trying to express. Technology is great for information sharing. Personal communication is best for issue resolution. Make sure you choose the right medium for your message.
Mark M. Fallon is president and CEO of the Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document-processing strategies. The company develops customized solutions integrating management concepts with emerging technologies to achieve total process management. For more information, please visit their Web site at www.berkshire-company.com.