Match Your Medium With Your Message

We’ve all experienced this: You address a personal issue with a colleague or you share some critical information with a project sponsor and it blows up in your face. You had no idea it could have gone that way but it did, and now your relationship with that person is fractured. If you’re like most people you probably went over and over what was communicated and can’t figure out where it went wrong. Odds are it wasn’t what was communicated; it was probably the medium you used to communicate it.

Today we have multiple ways to communicate with others; face to face, video conferencing, telephone, email, text messaging, fax, and snail mail. What you may not be aware of is that no communication medium is created equal.

Face to face is the richest medium for communicating because it is made up of three elements; words account for 7% of the message, body language 55%, and voice tone 38%. Correlate these elements and their importance with the different mediums above and you can see how they become less and less robust in communicating a message. Specifically, if you take face to face communication and insert technology into the mix for something like teleconferencing, it becomes a little degraded because of video resolution and sound quality. With telephone communication body language has been removed, but there is still voice tone and words. Email, text messaging, faxes and snail mail are the leanest of all communication mediums because all you have is written words.

Add to this the fact that with the face to face communication medium we have the opportunity to adjust our message in real-time based on feedback we are getting from the person we are talking to. If the person is giving us looks like they do not understand what we are saying, we can elaborate on a point further to clarify. If they appear to be getting upset, we can use softer and less direct words. This is another dimension to communication many of us don’t think about. With speaking on the telephone we get some real-time feedback based on the other person’s voice tone. But, with the written word (email, text messaging, and snail mail) there is no real-time feedback. It is basically a dump and run of information.

Every message you want to communicate has some level of volatility and there is a chance that what you have to say will trigger the person emotionally and evoke a negative response. We’re humans-we can’t help it. Given this, it makes sense to match the volatility of the message with the communication mediums you have available to you. Meaning that the more volatile the message the richer the communication medium you should choose.

Sounds easy, but here is why we unconsciously are reluctant to do so. The richer the medium, the more we have to encounter uncomfortable feedback in the process of communicating volatile information. It’s easy to hide behind email and say difficult things; and, it’s hard to be more present and experience the uncomfortable feelings of communicating something volatile.

Take Susan for example. A high profile project she was managing just encountered a major technology hurdle that was going to delay the project several months and cost the company an additional 15%. Instead of setting up a meeting to deliver the news face to face, she chose to send it out in an email because she believed it would be more efficient to do so. The response she got was very negative as expected; but, what she also got that was not expected was a fire storm of communication that she could not control. Accusations and recommendations from the original distribution list and many others up the chain of command were included in the many responses. She was ultimately removed as the project lead, all because she did not deliver the news in a face to face meeting.

If you care about the relationship with the person you need to communicate volatile information to or you need to control the response to it, then invest the energy and follow the rule. It may be harder, but you have a better chance of getting through the difficult time with less negative impact if you match your message with your communication medium.