Email, phone call, meeting, text message, instant message…

With so many modes of communication available to us, sometimes our favoured platform is not the most appropriate for the type of communication we are engaging in.

Like the email ping-pong that could have been a five-minute phone call. Or the hour-long meeting that could have been an email.

Putting thought not just into our message but the mode of delivery for the circumstance can have a big impact on the success of our communication.

Here are some things to consider:

PurposeWhat is the purpose of this communication? What outcome do you want? Are you trying to inform? Prompt discussion? Get feedback?
FormalityIs the tone casual, formal, official, serious, friendly?
UrgencyHow quickly do you need people to receive or respond to it?
ComplexityHow complex is the message? Is it multi-layered and likely to need clarification, explanation or discussion?
AccuracyIs it important that your message is delivered and received accurately/word-perfect?
Sensitivity / privacyCan this message be shared with others? How private or confidential is it?
RecordDoes there need to be a record of this conversation?
EmotionIs it likely to be emotive (either for the person delivering it or the person receiving it)? Is it important that care, empathy and compassion are conveyed? Do you need to ensure the person receives it with the right tone and support?
Audience / number of peopleHow many people is this communication for? Do they all need to receive the same message at the same time? What is the receiver’s preferred method of communication (if you don’t know, ask!).

Think about your answers to these questions, THEN make your decision about how to best deliver your message and which platform to use.

Below is an overview of which mode to use when: 

Email

  • Not urgent (or if it is, you’ve had a phone call or face-to-face first to let the person know the email it’s coming). Not everyone sits at their desk with their inbox open.
  • Fact-based and the intent is to inform.
  • Low emotion.
  • Easy to respond to and straightforward (not too complex or multi-faceted).
  • Updating or sharing information with a large group.
  • Not requiring discussion (or discussion is minimal).
  • Confirming details of a conversation.
  • Documenting, recording or providing clarity.
  • Capturing something where accuracy is important (such as instructions you need spelt out in writing).
  • Not confidential (unless you absolutely trust the recipient not to on-share).

One-on-one face-to-face meeting

  • Delivering confidential information regarding one person.
  • Giving or receiving feedback.
  • The communication is sensitive or emotive.
  • The need to convey care, empathy and compassion is important (through tone, body language, and words).
  • The topic requires discussion and has higher complexity than can easily be explained in writing.
  • You want to tailor your content and delivery style to the other person.
  • It’s not important for everyone to hear same message, at the same time, in the same way.
  • You want to coach, support and encourage someone.
  • It’s important you get an accurate read on their response through tone, body language, and what’s unsaid.

Group meeting

  • The topic being discussed affects or involves multiple people.
  • It’s an important or difficult message and you want to convey care, empathy, emotion and compassion.
  • Discussion and/or collaboration is needed.
  • It’s multi-faceted or complex and requires explanation.
  • There will be questions to answer.
  • You want multiple people to receive the same message at the same time.
  • You want feedback from multiple people at once.
  • It’s important to get an accurate read on people’s responses through tone, body language, what is said, and what’s unsaid.

Phone call

  • Urgency is high – you need to convey the message fast or get a quick response.
  • Two-way conversation is needed.
  • It is a lengthy or complicated message that requires explanation/discussion.
  • You need a detailed response.
  • It’s sensitive so you want to talk it through rather than put it in writing.
  • Conveying tone is important.
  • It’s a difficult message (face-to-face preferable to phone; phone preferable to email).
  • You want to be able to listen closely to what is said.

Text message

  • Urgent.
  • Informal.
  • A quick Q&A or clarification.
  • Short.
  • Unemotional.
  • Specific (not vague or open to misinterpretation).
  • Following up a phone call, setting up a phone call, or to notify someone that you can’t take a call.

Instant messaging (Skype, MS Teams, Slack, etc)

  • It is an agreed-upon platform. Otherwise it’s easy to miss important messages, lose track of where you read something, and hard to find again.
  • The communication is non-urgent (unless it’s the agreed-upon mode for urgent communication in your team).
  • It’s informal.
  • A quick clarification, question or exchange is needed.
  • The message is simple.

A little thought before you communicate goes a long way and I hope this guide helps you to make better choices about how you deliver your message.

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Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills (which are really hard). She is a speaker, trainer, facilitator, mentor and author of the book Soft is the New Hard: How to Communicate Effectively Under Pressure.