Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Holistic Communication: The rights and wrongs of communication channels

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Defining Communication Channels

Communication is transferring a message via a medium or channel from a sender to a receiver. There may be many receivers or no knowledge of who/how many there are. This post discusses the channels of communication. Stop for a moment and write a list (at least mentally) of the number of communication channels you have in your professional life and who they are communicating with.

I’ll rattle off a few for me:

  1. Direct verbal+physical communication to the people physically co-located with me
  2. Direct verbal only via phone
  3. Direct text only via instant messaging
  4. Direct rich text only via email
  5. Broadcast test via twitter/yammer/micro-blogging platform of choice
  6. Broadcast rich text/media via blog

I could probably go on all day.

Each of these channels has different strengths and weaknesses and so should be used for different purposes and to engage with different groups. There’s an implied purpose in most channels based on their technology, history and technical restrictions which should also be respected as otherwise the receivers can be made to feel quite uncomfortable.

For example, this kind of content which is relatively long, structured, inter-related and not aimed at an individual but broadcast to whoever is interested and chooses to search for it is broadcast on my blog. Links are automatically added to twitter and linkedin for the title but the content isn’t. Imagine instead of using my blog I’d used twitter to tweet this stuff in little 140 char snippets. I think after the first flood of1 5 posts all ending in “…” I’d have about 5 followers left. It’s considered rude and inappropriate. Imagine I’d direct emailed it to you!

Choosing Channels

Now all of this might be a bit obvious when I mention it but how often do you consider what the right channel is for a message you’re trying to deliver? Some of the differences in channels can be a lot more subtle than the example above and can therefore have unintended implications on the result of your message which is the true meaning of your communication.

Choice of channel isn’t just important when initiating communication it’s even more important when responding to communication. It’s just rude to respond to someone in a different channel than they contact you in unless explicitly stated. For example, if someone emails you they’ve chosen a non-immediate text based medium for whatever reason, if you phone them back you’re changing the gear of the interaction, taking away their opportunity to carefully consider their words by applying a time pressure and interrupting them from whatever they were doing.

All Many people have insecurities about communication and can even be neurotic about some channels, especially in highly technical organisations. Sometimes people feel vulnerable on the phone and would rather interact via text/im/email even when relatively close physically. Others find they’re uncomfortable with text based channels and would rather “speak to a real” person. Do you want to make someone uncomfortable when you’re communicating with them? Before the first action or word?

I operate a couple of golden rules:

  • Respond to people on the channel they use to contact you
  • Choose the channel that’ll get the best results by making the receiver comfortable

Obviously switching channel can be a powerful gear change if used correctly, as a pattern interrupt even.  I consider deliberately doing that unethical, so don’t accidentally do it as the effects can be far worse than you’d think.

My opinions on these channels

Here’s my take on some of these from a purely personal perspective. You may well find you have a different interpretation of some of these channels, which is kind of the point of the previous bit.


1. Direct verbal+physical communication to the people physically co-located with me

Good for: Almost all, there’s instant feedback and the ability to use and read non-verbal communication. The best channel to build relationships and rapport as well as dealing with an emotional response from someone else

Bad for: Unplanned emotional confrontation. If you’re angry about something stopping to write it down can help you to make sense of your feelings rather than the immediate lashing out that can happen in verbal channels.The worst channel to deal with negative emotion from yourself.

Notes: You just can’t beat physically talking to someone


2. Direct verbal only via phone

Good for: Remote quick messages that don’t need a recorded history, reinforcing personal relationships, asking quick questions. Important time-sensitive information. Freeform discussion between 2 people.

Bad for: Anything that needs a long term response, action, complex work or analysis. Structured conversation amongst a group. Conference calls are hell people! Anything emotional as you’ve cutting out non-verbal communication, the majority of human interaction.

Notes: Remember a phone call interrupts people, most of the time they’re not waiting for it so you’re imposing your conversation on them and interfering with whatever they were doing.


3. Direct text only via instant messaging

Good for: Remote quick questions, q&a chat rooms

Bad for: Same as the Direct verbal phone one above except that you’re cutting out even more information from the communication by removing tone, speed, phrasing etc. of voice communication.

Notes: Tends to imply a certain informality despite the fact that most corporate IM solutions are recorded. Some IM solutions indicate when someone wants to talk, or is typing. Ones that don’t are just terrible.


4. Direct rich text only via email

Good for: Structured, recorded information. Group think.

Bad for: Anything that requires action, anything emotional.

Notes: The younger people are the less relevant email is, some consider it should be banned. Like all tools it depends on how it’s used. Unfortunately most people use it badly and have an inbox like a blackhole – massive amounts of stuff goes into it but there’s no observable result. Mass emial has a much lower impact than direct email.


5. Broadcast test via twitter/yammer/micro-blogging platform of choice

Good for: Short updates, social connection, short q&a, promotion of other content

Bad for: Long, structured or complex information.

Notes: Frequency of posts needs to match the local cultural norms to avoid flooding. Similarly excessive content promotion is considered spamming.


6. Broadcast rich text/media via blog

Good for: Structured complex information broadcast to a wide audience

Bad for: Information aimed at an individual or small group

Notes: Blogs can have a range of interpretations depending on their history within an organisation. One organisation I worked with considered blogs to “just be opinions and nothing important was communicated on them”. Another published everything from individual opinions to HR policy and corporate communications on their internal blog system.



As always I’m interested in your opinions. Do you have anything to addon the good and bad points of various channels. Any pet hates?

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.


3 responses

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

  2. Pingback: Serious Gaming for education with complex layered metaphors « The Mac Daddy

  3. Pingback: What does “Agile at Scale” mean? « Mike MacDonagh's Blog

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