Choose the most productive communication channel for your message

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, The Productivity Pro®

E-mail, voice mail, and conference calls have revolutionized how we communicate both in corporate America and around the globe. In today's fast-paced business environment, companies depend on technology to link virtual teams across cities, states, and countries. Yet most companies don't provide training on how to productively communicate by using these resources, and most people don't consider which technology would most effectively communicate their message.

The communication method (or channel) that you select should depend on your message. Before you choose which technology to use, consider whether your message is:

  • Interactive or static     Should your communication be one-way or two-way? Interactive means a back-and-forth conversation; static means delivery of a message. What does your message require? Brainstorming and questioning require interactivity. Updates can be static.
  • Personal or impersonal     Personal means face-to-face, or on the phone. Impersonal communication is in writing. Does your communication require you to hear or see your customers or colleagues? Are you trying to build relationships? Will the tone of voice be important for this particular message? Are the ideas potentially confusing? Put some thought into whether your presence is a vital component of your message.

A communication channel becomes richer as you add human elements like voice tone, facial expression, and physical presence. The more complicated your message is, the richer your channel should be. When the message is routine and easy to understand, a lean channel is more appropriate.

The following flowchart provides guidelines for choosing the best communication method:

Choosing your communication channel

In general, consider selecting channels in the following order, from lean to rich:

  1. Intranet/shared drive
  2. Fax
  3. Letter
  4. Voice mail
  5. Pager
  6. E-mail
  7. Instant message
  8. Phone call
  9. Face-to-face (two people)
  10. Teleconference (internal and external participants)
  11. Videoconference (internal and external participants)
  12. Meeting (entire team)

To avoid wasting time on the wrong technology, put some thought into the best choice prior to communicating. Keep these important principles in mind when making your choice:

Call a face-to-face meeting only when physical presence is required     If the meeting does not require problem solving, brainstorming, or input from employees, use an alternative way to share or distribute information. When the information distributed is merely FYI, a face-to-face meeting isn't warranted. Consider sending out a group voice mail, an e-mail, or a memo. At the most, schedule a conference call, and ask participants to submit project status in writing two days prior.

Talk voice-to-voice when a message is potentially confusing or emotional     Through the early 1990s, when you needed to ask a colleague a question, you simply got up and walked to his or her desk or you picked up the phone. Today, colleagues don't even walk two doors down to converse; they just dash off an e-mail message. One detriment to this approach is that people spend inordinate amounts of time staring at a computer screen instead of interacting with one another. Before dashing off your next e-mail, think about your purpose. If you have a potentially confusing or emotional message, rely on personal communication instead.

Don't use voice mail as a way to avoid conflict     You can usually tell when someone did not expect you to personally answer a call. They often sound disappointed or unprepared when you answer, because they were poised to leave you a message instead. Automation gives people fewer opportunities to practice interpersonal skills. And because of the rushed, multi-tasking environments in which we operate, it's becoming harder to really focus during a personal conversation. The human touch may also be lacking when a company's automated phone answering system doesn't provide an option to speak to someone live. When you know a colleague is sitting at her desk, resist the urge to call her voice mail. Get up and deliver your message personally. If you're a customer-service professional, don't always answer calls through your voice mail. Instead, strive to relate personally with those on whom your business thrives.

Use the quick reference chart below to identify the purpose of your communication before you send it. Better yet, standardize the communication functions of your team by creating a custom chart that the team can agree to follow.

Function Meeting Phone or conf. call E-mail Voice mail Letter or fax
Brainstorming and negotiation X X
Formality required X X
Informal, quick update X X
Relationship building X X X
Distribution of lengthy, complex info X X
Distribution of simple, brief info X
Legal purposes; hard-copy requirement X X
Sending of detailed documents for review and response X X
Discussion of documents you sent X X
Sending of urgent message; need for immediate response X X
Discussion of familiar topic; need for little explanation X
Discussion of project updates and status X X
Need for corrective action or for praise X
Sharing of organizational message X X X
Addition of personal touch to quick message X
Need for open discussion on new policy X X
Quick sending of important update to many people; need for record-keeping X
Ensurance of privacy X X
Hearing of someone's voice to read between the lines X

There are many methods you can choose to communicate your message. Take the time to consider the right communication channel for your audience.

About the author     Laura Stack is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., an international consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, that specializes in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Laura holds an MBA in Organizational Management (University of Colorado, 1991) and is an expert on integrating advances in business productivity with the retention of key employees. Laura is the author of the best-selling book Leave the Office Earlier (Broadway Books, 2004).