Jerome, a manager at a large corporation, received an email from his boss, Sam, criticizing him because Jerome's project was running late. The main reason for the delay was that Sam had delayed approvals and required cumbersome, unnecessary reports. Incensed at this perceived attack, Jerome shot off an email to Sam, accusing him of being the source of the problem. Sam sent a counter-attack, and soon the two found that all their conversations were tense and stilted -- and the project was even further behind schedule.
When should you send an email instead of having a conversation? When should you forget the computer and pick up the phone? These questions plague many businesspeople.
Choosing the wrong mode of communication can be costly. Nuanced messages may be trampled by email, and vital paper trails can be lost by relying too much on the phone or meetings.
Determining whether to use email or have a conversation depends on the kind of message you are trying to convey and on the timing of that message.
Messages Suitable to Email
Confirming Agreements For better or for worse, every email creates a permanent record of your message. This is advantageous when you are confirming the terms of an agreement, the date and time of an appointment, or other factual details. So if you have had a phone conversation in which you hashed out the details of an engagement, you would write an email saying:
“This is to confirm our recent conversation, in which we agreed that we will perform an audit of Smith Company's 2013 books for a fee of $xxxx. We will begin the audit on [date] and complete it by [date].”
Making Introductions Let’s say that you want to introduce your friend Jeff to a business consultant named Mark. You could send them both an email that says:
“Jeff, meet Mark. We have worked with Mark for several years and he has been an extremely valuable member of our team. I think you will enjoy working with him.”
Then either Jeff or Mark could respond with an email asking to schedule a phone call so that they can get to know each other.
Keeping in Touch with a Team Need to float an idea past a group of people? Send an email. Need to share the agenda of an upcoming team meeting? Send an email. But if your message is likely to upset people, think twice before sending a bulk email. Is there a way you can deliver your news in a more personal way, such as with a group meeting or individual conversations?
Messages Suitable to Conversation
Complex or Nuanced Dialogues As in the example above, email is fine for making introductions. It is not great for developing relationships. Relationships grow through conversations. The phone or an in-person meeting are better tools for any message that requires sensitivity or inflection. Email is inherently a cold medium, while conversation enables you to use vocal pacing and tone to enhance your message.
Conflict Situations If you are in an conflict-laden relationship, avoid sending emotional emails. Settle your nerves and deal with the other person in a conversation. Don't try to avoid confrontation by hiding out in email. This approach is likely to backfire, leaving you with more tension and misunderstanding.
Confidential Conversations Email creates a potentially public, permanent record of every message. If you want to be certain that your words will not end up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, don’t email them. Pick up the phone. Do not leave your message on a voicemail; voicemails are now stored on servers as well. NSA notwithstanding, I believe you can still have a private conversation on the phone.
Situations Where Email Has Failed Have you just had three email exchanges while trying to set a date and time for a lunch? Face it. Email is not working. Pick up the phone, and in 30 seconds you will have your plan. Often, a quick phone call or meeting can resolve issues that had generated dozens of email messages.
In a publicly traded company I consult for, the executive team all needed to edit key press releases. The draft went out to ten people, and they all jumped on the document, sending out multiple versions of the draft to all ten people at once. It didn’t take long for a one-page press release to generate a hundred emails with comments. The company’s communications director realized that there had to be a better way. He sent out the release, asked people to prepare comments, and scheduled a brief meeting for the next day. “In a 15-minute meeting, we accomplished more than we had in a week of emails going back and forth,” he told me.
In next month’s Writamin, we will look at the timing of emails and phone calls, and how timing affects your decision of whether to email or call.
Do you have war stories about times when you made the wrong choice? Please share them with me. I will remove identifying details and share some of your stories. Then your experience can create a lesson for other people.
© 2014 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved