July 19, 2016

How the Medium Changes Your Message


In an age of digital distraction and information overload, two questions should be front of mind if our goal is to get our message across.

1. Where does communication break down?
2. How can we communicate more effectively?

Researchers Ray and Myers from Stanford wrote that “in practice, communication is the most complex of all complex activities of human existence.” True. And what compounds that complexity is the choice we have today to communicate via different communication channels. More, as we’ve seen, doesn’t always mean better. The following tips and tools will enable us to communicate more compellingly when the interaction takes place in the four main channels: Person, Print, Phone and Panel.

Person  – Face-to-face meetings and conversations are becoming a rare commodity these days. In this channel, it’s best we put away the devices and make eye contact with the people seated next to us and the person sitting across from us. The most sensitive of topics should be handled using this channel – evaluations, negative feedback, conflict resolution, problem confrontation, clearing up misunderstandings, or handling a break up of any kind. Common sense is not so common, and people are still firing each other by email and ending relationships in texts.

Print  – When we choose to communicate by email, text, memo, letter, article or using any other format where the written word is paramount, caution and consideration is key. The receivers of our message are readers, not listeners. Their inability to see our facial expression and body language, and to hear the tone of our voice, means that we have to overcompensate and anticipate. When we speak, for example, we could be using a sarcastic tone that implies we don’t expect our statement to be taken so seriously. Without our ability to convey that emotion nonverbally, however, the reader my take our statement as rude and offensive. A recent example shared with me was when a supervisor emailed her associate in what was perceived to be shouting caps: LET’S TALK!!! The associate walked to her supervisor’s office with trepidation, unable to hear the tone of excitement versus anger. So, yes, using the print channel may save us time, but it may also generate more communication problems. We’ll be wise to soften certain statements, buttress others, include emoticons where and when appropriate, and frame our messages with the purpose we aim to fulfill.

Phone – One-on-one phone calls and conference calls are common as a communication channel. Here, the hindrance to successful communication is not so much the medium as what else we’re doing, unrelated to the conversation, while we’re on the phone. I’m referring to multi-tasking. Because the person on the other side of the conversation can’t see us, we’re falsely assuming they can’t hear that we’re not paying full attention and focusing on them and the topic. They key is to have a back and forth and not monopolize the conversation in a two-way conversation. And in a conference call, it’s helpful to have everyone prepare for the call, to designate someone to facilitate the meeting, and to ensure that the facilitator includes all the participants and upholds sound ground rules that are customary to meetings that take place in person (i.e. not let people monopolize, and avoid playing the roles of opponent, complainer, interrupter, extravagant, aloof, distracted, etc.)

Panel – When using video, computer and smartphones to communicate, we have a screen between us and our audience. This may embolden some to say things they wouldn’t have the courage to say in a face-to-face situation. The general rule is: If it’s sensitive, it should be said using the personal channel; if it can’t be said when facing the person the message is intended for, it probably should not be stated behind a screen. “If you can’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it behind a screen.” Brave communication may also give way to boring communication. When our communication is on a panel, we need to color our black and white text and bulleted lists with vibrant visuals that will captivate our audience and keep them attentive to our intention. Many webinars present dry data instead of information that is new, relevant and interesting. Charismatic conversation, speaker photos and conceptual images in shorter timeframes will go a long way towards making the communication in this channel more effective.

Lee Broekman is a communication coach and trainer. Her company Organic Communication, brings interactive, never boring, always edifying presentations and programs — focused on communication, collaboration and innovation — to your firm or organization.