Lawyers pride themselves on being good communicators, but there’s more to effective communication than choice of words. Like just about anything you ask a lawyer, the answer to the question, “Which is the best way to communicate your message?” is, of course, “It depends.”
The phrase, “The medium is the message,” was popularized by Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian communications professor and theorist. In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he suggested that the way we send and receive information is more important than the information itself. The mode of communication significantly influences how the message is interpreted.
Consider the method
There are three basic types of communication: (1) verbal, where you listen to a person to understand their meaning; (2) written, where you read their meaning; and (3) nonverbal, where you infer meaning from their visual cues.
- Verbal communications in business generally occur over the phone, by videoconference, or in person. The medium of the message is oral. Tone of voice can impact the perceived meaning of a message, especially during phone conversations, because you’re not receiving visual cues. Phone calls, videoconferences, and in-person meetings have the real-time advantage of allowing the parties to immediately respond to any questions or address potential misunderstandings on the spot.
- Written business communications are printed messages such as memos, proposals, e-mails, letters, training manuals, operating policies, and the like. They may be printed or handwritten on paper or appear on a screen. Written communication can be trickier than verbal because there are fewer indicators of how the message is intended to be perceived. Punctuation and, these days, emojis can influence their interpretation.
- Body language is comprised of posture, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, touch, and interpersonal spacing, and greatly contributes to the success of a conversation. Only 7% of a receiver’s comprehension of a message is based on the sender’s actual words; 38% is based on paralanguage (the tone, pace, and volume of speech), and 55% is based on nonverbal cues(body language) according to UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian in his 1971 book Silent Messages.
Consider the recipient
More important than how the communicator wants to deliver the intended message is how the recipient is most likely to consume it. When choosing a mode of communication, do generations matter? While there are no hard and fast rules, there are trends:
- Those in the Baby Boomer Generation, born 1946-1964, prefer face-to-face interactions, phone calls, and email.
- Members of Generation X, born 1965-1980, prefer email, phone, and texts.
- Those in Generation Y, born 1981-1996, prefer email, text, and chat, using messaging apps to send and receive short messages.
- Members of Generation Z, born 1997-2012, like Gen Y, prefer written communication via technology and, due to lightning-fast internet speeds, expect rapid responses.
- Only time will tell how technological advances will influence the communication preferences of Generation Alpha, born 2013-2025—stay tuned!
Given that different people have varied preferences regarding modes of communication, ask others how they wish to interact rather than making assumptions, and defer to their preference. It’s important that the communicator use the channel through which the recipient is most likely to receive and understand the message. Likewise, proactively inform others regarding the best methods to connect with you and what is standard in your workplace. Respond to communication using the channel by which it was received.
Consider the message
Match the communications channel to the message.
- Phone calls are effective for long, detailed conversations while chat or texting works for short, informal messages, collaborating, and socializing.
- Sensitive information or discussion of touchy issues that could be misinterpreted or require a high level of security is best communicated by phone, videoconference, or in person.
- Something extremely important is best discussed in person, if possible.
- To convey a lot of detailed information, email may be best.
- When sending directions, phone numbers, and similar information, text or email is most effective.
- To make sure a time-sensitive message is received, consider using two forms of communication, such as an email and a phone call or text, depending upon the preferences of your recipient.
- Don’t discount good, old fashioned snail mail. A personal, handwritten note, like a thank you, will stand out from the online cacophony and make an impression.
And perhaps the most important piece of communications advice: Don’t put anything in writing—including email, text, or social media—that you wouldn’t want splashed across the front page of the New York Times!