In digging through my cavernous repository of articles in my Pocket queue, I uncovered a piece from Slate that declared The Death of the Telephone Call. I’ll never forget when a prominent investor once shared the story of dismissing America Online as a viable investment option because, “Why would I send someone an e-mail when I can just pick a phone and call them?!?”
As the methods and styles of communication continue to evolve, it’s worth taking a step back and reviewing when the phone vs. e-mail vs. text vs. in-person meetings are appropriate. And we’ll discuss why this blog post may have been much more effective as a video!
In terms of which communication method is the best option, I always come back to Stephen Covey’s fifth habit: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.
If you live this habit, then you become what’s known as an active listener. When someone else is talking, you focus intently on what they are saying and how they are saying it, instead of using that time to think about when you’re going to say next.
When you talk to someone face-to-face, you pick up most of their intent not by what they are saying but by how they are saying it: their body language, their intonation, their eye contact, etc. The further away to get from a live in-person discussion, the less clear you will be in terms of the intention of the speaker.
Here’s the order of communication styles, from most active to least active (and therefore, in my opinion, most to least valuable):
1) In-person discussion
3) Phone call
4) Text/Slack/Snapchat/AOL IM/ICQ (yes I’m dating myself)
As you can see, the most valuable methods have the combination of visual and audial inputs, then we have audio-only, then we have interactive written, and finally static written communication.
At the top of list, we have a give and take of ideas with lots of nuance, where two people are talking with each other. At the bottom of the list, we have a form of electronic communication where two people talk at each other instead of with each other.
Now if e-mail is the least effective method, why do people use it so widely?
And I know that for anyone in a corporate environment, there have been days where much of your day has been spent in front of your e-mail client. “Working” suddenly means “processing e-mails.” Trust me, that is not working, both literally and figuratively.
People prefer e-mail because it’s easy, because you don’t have the vulnerability of opening up to someone else and letting them really see you. You don’t have to worry about what someone else will say and how to deal with a potential conflict. To summarize… it’s just easy.
No one ever changed their mind because of an e-mail.
E-mails are a way for you to share your point of view with someone else with absolutely zero risk of having your point of view threatened. It’s a megaphone to magnify your thoughts, and as I’ve often coached my two kids, you can’t use your mouth and your ears at the same time!
Are e-mails all bad? Of course not. I’m a huge fan of e-mails for three things:
When is the meeting, what’s the agenda, who needs to attend, etc. E-mail is a great way to handle information that doesn’t require feedback. That’s why you should avoid the temptation to hit “reply” and say “thanks for the agenda I’ll see you at the meeting” because you’ve just created extra work for everyone!
A quick note to someone with words of encouragement can make a real difference. Years ago, when I was the president of a non-profit association going through a challenging time, one of the members sent me an e-mail expressing his confidence that I’d be able to handle things and thanks for volunteering my time and effort. I have this e-mail in a folder with other motivational things that I review at the beginning of every single week.
Stoking the Fire
The problem with more interactive forms of communication is they require time and effort and priority, and sometimes that just isn’t possible for the amount of people you want to connect with. I’ve always found that a quick e-mail that says, “Hey I haven’t forgotten about you and will be in touch soon so we can discuss next steps!” goes a long way.
Someday, when I launch the Dave Keller Academy for Interpersonal Communication, this blog post will most likely be adapted to a syllabus on when and how to use different modes of communication.
In the meantime, never use an e-mail when a more elevated form of communication is a viable option!
Disclaimer: This blog is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as financial advice. Please see the Disclaimer page for full details.