Thursday, March 17, 2011

Communication modalities

(This post is for a Walden assignment: to consider a particular set of words sequentially as written text, as audio, and as video, and to reflect on the different perceptions I had of the text each time. The text is not available outside our course site, however--sorry for those who are reading from outside Walden)

  • 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?
Text only:
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.


  1. Great analysis Hollis! I noted in my blog that I felt the voice mail message was the most appropriate, I felt that her tone was sympathetic (understanding) but showed urgency. I also stated that the face-to-face had the best tone. However, after reading your post, I realized that while the face-to-face had the best tone and came across as the least disrespectful that is was what Portny et, al (2008) described as being informal. “Communication that occurs as people think of information they want to share” (p. 368). The urgency was missing or not sincere.


    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.

  2. Good points, Andrea. I think there's room for flexibility in all those communication methods, but one of the basic principles is that effective communication happens when everyone leaves the room with the same understanding about what happened.

    At work, we're very informal--because our jobs involve a large amount of stress, and we believe that relaxing when we're off the lines is the best way to stay fresh for helping people at risk of suicide. So, as a supervisor, I often sit on the floor, lean on the wall, etc., when we're just having conversation. However, there needs to be a way of signaling that a more formal relationship is needed. In our culture, that's often phrased as a request to "speak privately". Both parties then move to a different location, and the change in venue typically accomplishes the shift into a more businesslike communication style.

  3. Hi Hollis,

    Great post - it seems that we both came to pretty similar conclusions.

    At the expense of sounding a little absurd, I always tell both my coworkers and clients that if they need me to do something that's important to them, to either call me or leave me a voicemail (some of my clients are often hundreds of miles away, so face to face is not possible), but if it's something that isn't as rushed, I often have them email me.

    Perhaps it's just me, but I always perceived that the more removed from a face-to-face communication people progress from, the more easier it is to understand the message that is being communicated.

  4. Hollis - The point made in relation to the order in which the artifacts were presented is an interesting one. This was not something considered while reviewing these items or writing about them. Arguably, from a personal perspective, the voice message seemed to be the most approachable attempt for meeting the needs of the project. Can it be argued whether it was the most effective, absolutely, yet it is interesting the read the various reactions among each colleague and gauge the observation level and what seems to be more acceptable to others. Another thing to consider would also be how often such methods of communication are used on our behalf. Consider if the familiarity of emoticons, underline, and bold text were something of a nuance to us. Would the general impression of the email be rethought?

  5. Nick and Renee, you both make excellent points here. Nick, I totally do what you describe in asking people to call me when things are really important! Or, to put it in different words: "if you really need to know that I received your message, make sure you hear me say I got it."

    Renee, I was thinking about your points just now and remembering that Portny et al (2008) talk about the early work of a project team as being about deciding how they're going to communicate. It seems like sorting out these preferences is an important part of the job, because you're right that many of us have strong preferences about communication styles. And yes, little signifiers can make a big difference!