- How did your interpretation of the message change from one modality to the next?
- What factors influenced how you perceived the message?
- Which form of communication best conveyed the true meaning and intent of the message?
- What are the implications of what you learned from this exercise for communicating effectively with members of a project team?
This seems like a brief, fairly businesslike email from an antsy co-worker who's asking for data. She follows a fairly standard metaphorical template for acknowledging the reasons why Mark may not have been able to get the work done, but it doesn't sound sincere--and it's overshadowed by the rest of her communication. Jane (the writer) uses an informal tone in her email, with some grammatical errors that catch my eye.
From a text design perspective, her email has a single very long paragraph followed by a one-line paragraph, which makes it look unbalanced and rushed. Her closing "I really appreciate your help" feels insincere, too.
I think we've all gotten emails like this; in my experience, without knowing the person, it's hard to know whether it's an urgent plea or a simple reminder.
Jane's voice sounds a little bit strained to me, but that could be projection. Her affect is relatively flat in the recorded voicemail, which leads me to believe that she's fairly frustrated--most people I know tend to have more animated inflection when they're having a non-frustrated conversation.
(Clearly Jane-in-the-video is not the same person as Jane-in-the-voicemail). Jane's posture and demeanor seem relaxed here, and the fact that she's leaning over a cubicle wall (with arms crossed atop it) rather than entering the cubicle lends credence to the idea that this she's making a request, not expressing frustration or serious urgency. She blinks an awful lot at the beginning of the video (while expressing compassion for Mark's tribulations), which makes me question her sincerity again.
One of the discussion questions asks which form of communication best conveyed the true meaning and intent of the message. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "I don't know". I think all forms of communication leave their marks and shadings on the message, and since I'm not Jane, I'm not sure quite what the "true" meaning and intent was. I definitely took somewhat different messages from each form of communication, and that has relevance for us in the project management context.
I think it's worth considering the order of messages, too. I think I would take a different sense of Jane's meaning if I first saw the video (relaxed, fairly friendly, focused) and then read the email (which would then confirm the specific things she needs) rather than in the opposite order (where the email sets an urgent, somewhat snippy tone and then the video undercuts that message). My own sense as a supervisor is that when you have problems with coworkers or employees, it's best to convey that information in a face-to-face meeting whenever possible--following up with written documentation. Otherwise, people frequently mistake the seriousness of the incident or infer things that aren't true. Portny et al (2008) might call this the distinction between formal and informal communications.
Part of the point of this exercise is to talk about the strengths of different kinds of communication. We tend to use a lot of email and text these days, and one of the strengths of written communication is that it's fast, it's efficient, it's clear, and it's permanent. We can share a lot of data pretty quickly, and it's easy to skim or scan to find what we're looking for. The downside of skimming is that people often skim right over the important bits--and, although it's easy to convey data through text, it's much harder to convey emotion and tone. If it were easier to write emotions convincingly, novels would cost a lot less!
Voice communication is cheap these days, and it has the benefit of being synchronous. When there are misunderstandings, both parties are free to clarify things immediately. It's also much easier to convey non-verbal things like tone and certainty through voice. A drawn-out pause means a lot in a phone conversation; in an email, it doesn't register. Voice communication is slow, though, and it isn't possible to skim. With voicemail and other vocal recording technologies, voice communication can create a permanent record, which is useful.
Face-to-face contact is the gold standard for clear communication about emotions. It's often less efficient for data-driven communication, but it has clear benefits for interpersonal relations. It's often more satisfying to be in the same room than to be on the phone or exchanging email, but there are costs to arranging face-to-face time (says the guy who's driving for three hours to see his girlfriend every other weekend). Without video cameras, face-to-face communications don't usually have permanent records, which means that we want to document conversations in written form.
I think we need to look at what we're trying to convey before we can really choose the best medium. If the message is intended to specify requirements, an email is great. If it's supposed to convey urgency or an emotional appeal, voice or face-to-face may be better. For delivering hard news or discipline, I think face-to-face communication is the way to go.
Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.