Why well-crafted messages delivered through the right channels will make better communicators – and leaders – of us all.
Video conferencing can be a mixed blessing. It’s a communication channel that has many uses and positives, even earning something of a reputation as an inclusion booster. But its limitations were thrown into stark relief when Vishal Garg, CEO of mortgage provider Better.com, chose it as the medium through which to make 900 of his employees redundant at the end of 2021.
In a three-minute call, he communicated the news to the meeting invitees that “If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group being laid off. Your employment here is terminated, effective immediately.” A subsequent message on the company website in which he acknowledged that he had “blundered” the communication might have been made for that cautionary phrase: too little, too late.
Communication at work can be a tricky business. All sorts of barriers can get in the way of messages hitting home in the ways we want, whether we’re on transmit or receive. Barriers can be as simple as the physical noise of a busy open-plan office or as complex as our own attitudes and prejudices. And, as Garg and his ex-employees found to their cost, failing to create a well-honed message and match it with an appropriate medium for delivery is a sure-fire way to miss the mark.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of senior executives making tone-deaf message and channel choices, and we’re all familiar with less dramatic, but still frustrating, message-medium mismatches at work. Many of us will have waded through a long written report when a quick face-to-face meeting (or video conference) might have been a better choice. Or cringed at the tone of an all-company email. Or wondered why we can’t seem to get on top of the right social media channels.
As busy leaders, it can often be tempting to take communication shortcuts or struggle to make the right choices, whether we’re communicating with colleagues or the external world. We might know in our heart of hearts that it would be better to have a proper conversation about how that client presentation went, but it’s tempting just to dash off a quick email all the same. And, yes, we know that the monthly client newsletter needs a proper overhaul, but it never quite makes it to the top of our to-do list.
The fact remains, though, that making the right choices more often will improve the impact of our communications – and make better leaders of us too.
Back to basics
It helps to remind ourselves of the key variables at play when we want to communicate something to someone, asking ourselves some simple questions that will help us to build a clearer picture of the message we want to communicate and how we can best deliver it.
The first question is about our audience: who are we communicating with? What’s our relationship with them? Are they colleagues or external stakeholders? How well do they know us and/or our organisation? How important is it to develop ongoing relationships with them?
For example, consider the difference between routine communication with team members we know well and one-off reports to senior leaders or a press release announcing a major new product.
What’s the purpose of the communication? Is it simply to pass on some information or are we trying to persuade or achieve something more nuanced (like making people redundant in a sensitive and humane way, perhaps)?
For example, are we sharing weekly sales figures or brainstorming what we might do to improve sales performance?
What’s the message we want to communicate? Is it simple or complex? Are we clear about how it will be structured and the tone and language we’ll need to use? How formal or informal should we be? How can we make the message as engaging as possible, using techniques such as storytelling?
For example, are we creating a compelling new business proposal or updating colleagues on its progress?
There are four basic types of communication we might use to deliver our message:
Verbal: speaking and listening to a person to communicate or understand the meaning of a message.
Written: in which the message is written and read.
Non-verbal: how a person’s body language and facial expressions can infer meaning.
Visual: using photographs, art, drawings, sketches, charts and graphs to convey information.
Each has different strengths and weaknesses, and can be used in combination or to reinforce one another. The types are also associated with specific channels or media we might use, from an in-person conversation (verbal and non-verbal) to email or messaging apps (written) and everything in between.
For example, written communication can work well when we need to convey facts, we don't require a response urgently, or we want a permanent record of the communication. Verbal communication is better when non-verbal cues might help to reinforce the message or the communication needs to be more immediately interactive.
With so many variables in play and often limited time in which to marshal this information and make sense of it, it’s little wonder that it can be difficult to make the right decision. But thinking carefully about them will help us to craft the right message for our audience and deliver it via the right channel. Classic thinking from American academics Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel can also help.
Media richness theory (MRT)
Daft and Lengel’s media richness theory is based on the idea that different information channels carry different levels of “richness” and that understanding this helps us to identify which channels we might use depending on what we need to communicate, and in what context.
They define information richness as “the ability of information to change understanding within a time interval”. The media or channels we have available to us vary in this ability, and the MRT framework offers a guide to this continuum.
Richer media are characterised by four key components:
1. The immediacy of feedback
Synchronous media (where messages are exchanged in real time with participants in the same space/time) that allow for immediate (timely) feedback and interaction are richer than asynchronous non-interactional media (messages exchanged independent of space/time).
2. The ability to handle multiple information cues simultaneously
The more cues available – such as sight, sound and touch – the richer the media.
3. Language variety
The greater variety of words, signs and symbols used, the richer the media.
4. Personal focus
The greater the opportunity for human connection and personalisation, the richer the media.
Media that are “rich” are especially well suited for communicating nuanced, equivocal messages with high complexity, while “lean” media are best for communicating simple, certain and unequivocal messages.
Unsurprisingly, Daft and Lengel consider face-to-face meetings with smaller groups to be the richest form of media. In contrast, they see numeric reports or non-personalised communication to larger groups as the leanest. Their MRT continuum, shown below, offers some examples of media types and where they sit based on their richness.
It’s not the case, of course, that rich media channels are always the better option. MRT helps us to make that tricky decision about the level of richness we need for the communication we’re planning.
One of the key factors to consider when selecting a communication channel is how to reduce the chances that our message will be misinterpreted. If a message is equivocal, less cut and dried, we’ll need more cues, data and connection – richness – to improve its chances of being properly received. That’s why giving someone performance feedback in an email rather than in person is unlikely to be well received – or have the desired effect.
In contrast, email or messaging apps are entirely appropriate for more transactional communication around things such as arranging meetings or other basic admin where more finesse is unnecessary. Sometimes, lean channels can also offer certainty when problems have a clear and direct answer and we need to get to the point without any additional details that might complicate things.
Since Daft and Lengel developed their theory in the 1980s, the range of communication tools and channels has changed beyond recognition, but its fundamental principles and the four components of rich media still offer a useful guide. And it’s hard to argue with their view that high performing leaders tend to be more “sensitive” to richness requirements in channel selection, able to identify when rich or lean is the right way to go and choosing a media channel accordingly.
External communications: we’re all in sales now
Getting the message-medium match right is important for all communications, but it’s crucial when we want to deliver business messages to individuals outside our organisations. External communications might announce changes in staff or strategy or financial results. They may be used to influence receivers to take some action, such as buying a product or service or funding a new business proposal. They may be a tool to maintain ongoing relationships with customers or clients.
Their goal is to create and deliver a message that the receiver will understand, act on and share with others. They come in many forms, from press releases, advertisements and bulk emails or newsletters to reports, proposals, web pages, live chats, webinars and social media. Resource constraints might also need to be taken into account. For example, we may want to use a range of social media channels, but, in reality, we might have to focus on the ones where our stakeholders spend most time.
Whatever form they take, and whatever purpose they serve, we need to take extra care that we’ve interrogated our audience, thought clearly about purpose and crafted our message carefully – before choosing a medium or channel that offers the best chances of success.
According to author Daniel Pink the environment in which we now work has made sales people of us all: we all spend time trying to influence and move others, even when we’re not explicitly in a sales team or department. And in an era where the people who are “selling” no longer have exclusive access to relevant information (everyone can do a Google search), we’ve moved from a guiding principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) to caveat venditor (seller beware). In this world of “information parity”, we need more than ever to have an eye to techniques and communications that can persuade people to come on side, whether that’s with a new idea for streamlining our processes or a major new contract.
Pink has his own version of the classic sales acronym ABC (Always Be Closing), more in tune with this new world and relevant, too, for how we communicate effectively:
Attunement: our ability to connect with others, to empathise and build rapport. This reminds us that communication and influence are almost always about building and maintaining relationships.
Buoyancy: asking questions of ourselves and having a positive outlook, “The combination of a gritty spirit and sunny outlook,” according to Pink. This asks us to have the self-awareness and self-management to stop, think and consider before we communicate, having an eye to our own motivations and biases and the appropriate tone we should use.
Clarity: our capacity to see, and to help others see, situations and issues in new ways. This speaks to the idea that communication is about creating shared meaning.
We need to think in terms of “service selling”, helping others to solve problems and be more successful. “Really good salespeople want to solve problems and serve customers,” says Pink. Keeping this in mind makes for better relationships and communication between “buyers” and “sellers” – whatever the context.
The mid-20th century Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said that “The medium is the message”, and he’s right: the form of a message and how it is delivered will inevitably determine how it is received and perceived. Just ask Vishal Garg. In the aftermath of his now-infamous video call, some of his senior colleagues threatened to resign, and Garg himself was reputedly “taking some time away” from the business. To avoid the same fate, we need to be aware of the pitfalls of tone-deaf, mismatched messages and media. Instead, we need to take the time to consider why and what we want to communicate, to understand our audiences and to deploy appropriate channels that give us the best chance of communication success.
Test your understanding
- Identify the four basic types of communication we might use to deliver messages.
- Outline the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication channels.
- Explain why “richer” media are more appropriate for equivocal or more nuanced communication.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider three types of communication media you’ve used recently, and plot them on the MRT richness continuum. Were they all the best possible choices for the messages you were communicating?
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