In 1964, Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message" in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan championed the notion that a communication type itself—rather than the subject of the communication—informs how the message gets interpreted.
Following the increased adoption of tech-based communications and productivity tools among businesses, this concept may be worth another look for business leaders and small business owners who are trying to sharpen how they communicate with employees and how employees communicate with each other. New policies and procedures that balance the pros and cons of each channel may help businesses break out of stodgy or unfocused communication habits that can slow down productivity or fail to allay confusion about goals, needs and expectations.
If you're looking to improve how you communicate with your team, it helps to first understand what each medium does and doesn't do well, and understand what type of message each tends to send.
Business Communication Types
Generally, there are a few ways that information flows in business communications.
Vertical or top-down communication refers to a message sent by a supervisor or superior to a group or person at a lower level. Often shorter and more formal, top-down communication is useful for simple announcements or instructions, which often affect a large number of people in a similar manner and don't require a personalized response back. Its primary mode is the office memo.
Horizontal or side-to-side communication involves a dialogue between two groups or people on the same footing. Longer and more technical, side-to-side communication is effective for collaborating with coworkers on a project or organizing inputs from a group.
Unidirectional communication can still be used today in situations where conversation or feedback isn't required. The rise of the internet, however, has resulted in far more multidirectional communication. Now senders and receivers exchange relevant information back and forth in a matter of seconds. Along with it, the expectations of how messages should be communicated has changed.
Since it can inspire action in real time, multidirectional communication affords greater degrees of clarity, problem-solving and motivation. If you want to encourage open and continuous dialogue on an evolving or complex issue, multidirectional communication is probably the best approach.
Considering Different Business Communication Channels
To enable the most of multidirectional communication, leaders may want to consider deploying a thoughtful, omni-channel strategy. An omni-channel strategy creates and delivers a consistent and integrated message through multiple channels, shaping the message to the preferences of the audience based on how they think about and behave on each channel.
"The most impactful communication channel is based on your audience," says Charlotte Ntreh, managing partner of organizational change firm PeopleResults.
"People pay attention to and react to the option that best aligns with their listening and interaction style," she continues. "Remember, communication is not about you, it’s about the person with whom you’re communicating."
"You'll win people over and make yourself irreplaceable if you adapt your communication channel to what the other person prefers," agrees Elise Gelwicks, founder and CEO of interpersonal skills coaching company Eleview Consulting. "If you sense they appreciate a quick phone call over an email, call them. If they text you with questions, think about using text to respond."
In order to create a communication channel plan, business leaders may first want to become familiar with the most common channels, as well as their unique opportunities and potential pitfalls.
While this method may have proven challenging during the global pandemic, it's often still considered the gold standard for communicating sensitive or highly personal messages. Suggesting a face-to-face meeting communicates that you really value your relationship with the other person, and that you want to understand their point of view as well as you possibly can.
"If you need to talk about a delicate situation or deliver bad news, always do so in person if you can," says Gelwicks. "This allows you to get a real-time understanding of the other person's reaction so you can adjust your tone and messaging accordingly."
In-person energy can also bring out the best in human collaboration, so it can be helpful for creative brainstorming and building a rapport with your team. It can also go a long way in boosting morale.
That said, face-to-face communication isn't always the safest during COVID-19, nor the most practical in situations where great geographic distances are involved.
In March 2020, videoconferencing—which has been around for decades—emerged as the default mode of business communications.
A videoconference can communicate that you would like to share a message in person, but are settling for the next best thing. It can say that the message you want to communicate is important enough to earn your complete attention, and is something that has enough urgency to earn a block of time on your busy calendar. Formal, one-on-one performance or networking meetings are examples of the videoconferencing medium pinch-hitting for the in-person medium.
Videoconferencing can also level the playing field for leaders as it may help remote employees not feel feel like second-class workers while working far from the home office. And it can provide a more economical way for leaders of far-flung teams to sustain camaraderie.
However, because it may not promote quite the same enthusiasm as an in-person work experience, video-based meetings can get tiresome—especially when one has them eight hours a day. Therefore, it may help leaders to assess whether a videoconference is necessary for every occasion and to consider whether another channel would do just as well.
There is a time and a place for a good, old-fashioned phone call—even if it’s made via cloud-based software. Requesting a phone call can express that the volume of information is high and your receiver's real-time feedback is critical, but does not require the formality that comes along with a video call. When used one-on-one, phone calls can make it seem like the message is a bit more personal than business.
"Not only does a phone call grow rapport, but it also shows the person that they're a priority because you're making the time investment to have a conversation," advises Gelwicks.
When making a relationship-building phone call, try to avoid the pitfall of catching people off guard. You're likely to get a better result if you give them a heads up first.
Email has become the default mode of communication in business, particularly within an organization. It's often the first exchange of business-context comms between people meeting for the first time, it often hosts business-critical file-sharing, and it can convey a bit of information about an organization's culture by what type of etiquette is practiced among its senders.
"For many knowledge workers, email is the primary communication channel. Therefore, how you email is how you're perceived," Gelwicks says. "This perspective is helpful to bring more intention and awareness to the often hurried emails we send. With more care, we can prevent unnecessary frustration with grammatical errors, nonsensical statements, run-on paragraphs and misunderstandings."
A critical lens to consider email through is its asynchrony, or the fact that messages can successfully be exchanged without sender and receiver being connected to one another in real time. There can be two delay periods in email communication: the first between when the message is sent and when it's read, and the second is between when the message is read and when a response is sent.
How you and your employees treat these delay periods can express the ethics and expectations of your culture, for better or worse. For example, if a new employee is on an email thread where others are promptly responding after-hours, they may think that there is an expectation of being 'always-on,' regardless of the hour, which may over time affect their engagement and happiness. Even if the employees who are communicating are doing so on their own accord, it may be communicating a message of urgency to others. In these cases, it pays to be clear with each employee of what your expectations of responsiveness to after-hours emails are. Unspoken, your employees might take cues from others' work-style preferences that ultimately may not match the expectations you have.
There are pros and cons associated with using texting in business communication.
On one hand, it’s easy, affordable and fast. You're also more likely to get a response because many have their mobile phone near them 24/7.
"As a consultant, I’m noticing that more of my clients are requesting that we exchange phone numbers and communicate via text," says Ntreh. "Text says that you need to get someone's attention quickly, or that the message is one that can be communicated briefly."
However, texting is informal by nature, so leaders might find the way these exchanges to be too personal for business. Also, some employees might view texting with employers as crossing a boundary and/or as an invasion of privacy, which could negatively impact engagement.
Social Media and Online Messaging Platforms
Business communication is increasingly moving to online platforms, especially social networks. When you invite communication with a business contact on social media, it may indicate that you are willing to show a deeper and broader side of yourself, and that you are interested in maintaining ongoing contact.
"Social media is an equal opportunity for good and bad," says Ntreh. "It allows you to introduce yourself to and connect with new people and grow your personal brand. But on the other hand, it can tarnish your work reputation if you are too honest or share information that some recipients might view unfavorably. Although you may be compelled to say it like you mean it, save it for kitchen table talk."
Leaders should consider promoting continuous team collaboration through an internal messaging channel. The platform can be associated with existing workflow software or your Intranet, or you can deploy apps like Slack or Chanty. While there are varying degrees of adoption and communication might not be evenly distributed or received, social media and online messaging are among the most cost-effective methods to communication with audiences on a large scale.
Nonverbal Business Communication
Even in a world of videoconferencing, when it comes to communication effectiveness, body language is still as important as spoken language.
First impressions are formed in a matter of seconds, and leaders’ physical appearance and demeanor should convey authority and professionalism rather than sloppiness and disconnectedness. Smiles, nods, eye contact, active hand gestures and “power poses” may present leaders as warm and approachable, but also credible and trustworthy. When your nonverbal signals align with your words, you are more likely to engender respect and cooperation, build a sense of teamwork and improve morale.
The medium truly is the message. In an era where smart machines are handling more business tasks, leaders' human advantage will be in deploying the right communication types and channels that best support their team building and engagement objectives.
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