Choose the right medium for your message.
You know the feeling: when you return to your desk after lunch, your inbox greets you with 75 new emails. Most are routine, but one of them hangs you up. You slowly begin drafting a reply, but you can already anticipate all the ways it might backfire.
With more tools than ever for connecting with each other, communicating clearly and effectively should be getting easier, not harder. But access to all the latest tools doesn’t solve the human dimension of communication. The most complex dynamic is the emotional context that accompanies every word we say.
Think about a simple email exchange at work. Let’s say you write to a colleague:
Hi — I just got off the phone with the customer, and they want the results as soon as possible. Can you please send me the report by the end of the day?
A minute later, your colleague replies:
That single word, “OK,” could have dozens of meanings. Since it’s not clear, you begin to invent stories in your head about your colleague’s judgment of your professional competence. You feel your stomach clench. The challenge of email is that the text has to provide the complete emotional context for the reader to understand the sender’s intent. This is the root cause of countless misunderstandings over email.
Now imagine this exchange again, except this time you and your colleague both work in the same office, so instead of emailing you walk across the bullpen to talk face to face.
– Hey, got a second?
– Sure. What’s up?
– I just got off the phone with the customer, and they want the results as soon as possible. Can you please send me the report by the end of the day?
Even though the reply is the same, this time you get a lot more instantaneous information. Without thinking about it, you’re able to read your colleague’s emotional cues in three different channels:
In this hypothetical case, the content doesn’t tell you much (“OK”), but the visual and vocal channels can fill the gap. Your colleague may have barely glanced up from the screen before muttering, “OK.” Or a smile coupled with a chipper voice may have signaled, “Sure, no problem.” Anything from nonchalance to anxious uncertainty could come across through the visual and vocal channels.
Emails and in-person meetings are at opposite ends of a continuum as far as the amount of emotional context they provide.
Email grew out of old-fashioned letter writing, and formalities such as greetings and sign-offs are legacies that have stuck around to this day. But as email transcended the letter format and became the go-to tool for most routine work correspondence, its emotional starkness became problematic — it was too easily misinterpreted. As a result, even oldsters like me who were taught never to use exclamation points began closing emails with “Thanks!” just to be clear about happiness or appreciation. Email remains useful conveying brief, discrete information, but in practice it has significant limitations.
Email’s wonky flatness led people to devise emoticons out of ordinary punctuation symbols on a traditional keyboard. ;) Emoticons and emojis signal a degree of familiarity between the sender and the reader, and as a result they are often too informal for professional emails. But they’ve made it fairly easy to signal emotional intent through instant message or chat tools such as Slack.
Hearing a speaker’s voice opens up a wealth of information that’s impossible to glean from words and images on a screen. Inflection, pauses, or sudden changes in cadence, volume, or tone can tell an emotional story that a speaker may not even have intended to share. Think of a quavering voice delivering a eulogy, or an uncomfortable silence before a response to an inappropriate remark at work. Recent research by Michael Kraus at Yale University has shown that the vocal channel gives the most accurate signals of a speaker’s emotional state.
Even if the voice provides the clearest indicator of emotion, sometimes there’s no substitute for showing up in person. To paraphrase Robert Cialdini, the godfather of influence studies, visibility is a proxy for importance. There’s a reason entrepreneurs do roadshows to raise venture capital and presidential candidates eat corn dogs at county fairs in efforts to win voters. If you want people to know that you take them seriously, being there matters.
Meeting face to face provides the full complement of signals, and our brains are wired with tons of circuitry for reading visual cues. Think back to the example of a colleague barely looking up from the screen when you stop by to chat. Or imagine a difficult conversation with a close friend who suddenly avoids your gaze out of shame or embarrassment. In a live setting, everything is on display. While it’s not always possible or necessary to meet in person, video calls are increasingly popular because they provide much of the same input.
The challenge is choosing the right medium for the message. When weighing factors such as scale, speed, and efficiency, the answer can be counterintuitive. It may seem faster to whip off an email to a single person than to pick up the phone, but if it’s going to take three emails to get a reply, a quick call may be the better option.
Another tradeoff is between live and asynchronous communication. Calls and in-person meetings happen in real time. Questions and answers take place on the spot, and it’s relatively easy to fill in gaps or provide additional context. Email and chat are asynchronous: if I write you an email, you don’t have to answer immediately. On the plus side, this can allow some private time to think before responding. The downside, of course, is that many people spend lifetimes reading emails and composing replies in never-ending volleys.
Finally, there’s an emotional intelligence judgment to make. If you fear that your message might be misinterpreted in an email, it probably will be. Similarly, delivering bad news through email can come across as uncaring or even disrespectful, depending on the circumstances. It may be unavoidable in some cases, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal.
When deciding which medium to use, try to think from the perspective of the person on the receiving end of the exchange:
– How complex is your message?
– How likely is it that you’ll be misunderstood?
– Will your message elicit an emotional response?
– Do you need to address questions or provide context in real time?
– How high are the stakes?
The answers to these questions aren’t always straightforward, but they can prevent unforced errors and the heartburn that follows. A timeless bit of wisdom says that in any situation there are two kinds of interests: the issue at hand and the relationship. When choosing the right medium, start with the relationship.
 Kraus, M. W. (2017). Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy. American Psychologist, 72(7), 644–654.
 Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade. New York, NY, US: Simon & Schuster.
 Fisher, R., Patton, B., & Ury, W. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in (Rev. ed.). New York: Penguin Books.