I wrote this for the Inside Indiana Business Inside Edge Newsletter after a discussion with my class. As we talked about how far we’ve come as communicators, we all agreed that we still have a long way to go–and that will likely lead to even greater changes in our communication environment.
For most of us, email is our primary form of communication. Whether we’re pounding away on a desktop keyboard or hunting and pecking (while hoping to avoid auto-correct infamy) on our touch screens, most of us spend significantly more time typing than talking. That fact reveals something critically important about the state of communication: today our predominant form of communication is the exact opposite of what is optimal.
Consider that communication generally works best when:
- It’s spoken. Speech isn’t dependent on the vagaries of spelling and (frequently misused) cues like punctuation. Plus, we hear inflection and tone, which are hard to replace, even with emoticons. :^) (See? Told ya.)
- It’s done face-to-face. While the telephone allows for speech even when we can’t be in the same room as our audience, it doesn’t allow us to convey emotions and supplement with hand gestures that may add meaning to a conversation.
- It’s done synchronously, meaning that all parties hear what is said and have the opportunity to respond in real time.
The fact is—as much as it pains me to say this as a former English major—writing is frequently a poor substitute for speech. All writing is, to be plain, a transcription of speech, wherein we use symbols (the alphabet and punctuation) to replace the words we would say if we had the opportunity to speak. We use it out of necessity, that is, not because it’s superior.
This isn’t to say, of course, that writing doesn’t have its place. It first emerged as a way to communicate when we couldn’t be face-to-face—which is, in today’s busy world, most of the time. Email also allows for significant efficiencies when we need a record of conversations or need to communicate with multiple people at once. In those cases, email is better.
For the most part, though, we rely on email out of habit and convenience (or, if I’m being less charitable, laziness). If you want to improve a communicator, then:
1. Don’t send an email if if it’s possible to talk face to face, what you have to say is important, or if the meaning could be misinterpreted without visual and audible clues.
2. If you can’t talk face-to-face, consider video chat (via Skype, Facebook video chat, Google Hangouts, etc.). It’s not as good as being in the same room, but it’s the next best thing.
3. Don’t use email when the phone is a better choice. Phone calls tend to get short shrift in our email-first communication environment, but they’re the better choice in many cases, such as when questions will lead to more questions or when tone of voice is important.
4. If you need a written record of the conversation, use email to recap. Yes, that requires some additional time, but it’s just as likely to save time in the long run.
Finally, be prepared for considerable changes in our communication environment sooner than you might imagine. Tools like iPhone’s Siri and Google Voice have made typing a little less necessary, if not altogether expendable, and video conferencing has become more affordable and accessible than ever before. There’s more where that came from in the near term. As our communication environment has evolved over the years, it’s clear that we’ve come a long, long way. However, it’s equally as certain that we still have quite a long way to go.