The medium is ‘still’ the message

7 insights to enhance your communication in the work environment

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Marshall McLuhan made the statement “The medium is the message” (*). The essence of McLuhan’s point of view is that the medium that is used for communication is more important than the actual message itself. In his book — although I have not read it fully — his argument is that the medium through which we communicate changes social and cultural aspects of society.

Whereas McLuhan takes a holistic perspective on communication, I have always viewed his statement as stating that the value of any message should be viewed through the medium by which it is communicated. As an example consider how different you feel when you receive birthday wishes in the following way:

  • via a public message on social media,
  • via a personal digital message (e.g., WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger),
  • via a physical birthday card, or
  • via a handshake and/or hug from a friend

Even though the message is the same, the value for you as a recipient in each of these cases is different.

The medium through which you communicate values the message for the receiver

Following this line of reasoning you can also understand that selecting the right medium for the type of message that you want to send is important. By selecting the right medium you can enhance, or diminish the effectiveness of your communication.

Communication in your work environment

I’m personally convinced that in present-day working environments effective communication is one of the most important soft skills that you need. Communication skills are critical in any business environment. You continuously need to collaborate with colleagues, or stakeholders on complex tasks. This requires you to share and acquire knowledge on a daily basis.

Especially in a role as Product Manager or Product Owners you could even consider communication the most important skill you have. Most of the time you will have to rely on other people in your organization to get things done. This means that you will have to motivate people for a vision or idea, explain them what should be done, and motivate why your business plans are valuable. To perform all these tasks you need a wide variety of communication skills, and it is of the utmost importance that you communicate effectively to all your stakeholders.

Effective communication means finding a balance between the value of your message, the actual content and your goal of communication. There are two important considerations you should be aware of:

  1. select the proper medium for your message
  2. tailor your message and behavior to your the medium

The remainder of this article will go more in-depth in these two topics.

Select the proper medium

You should always select the proper medium for your message. There are a few criteria to consider when sending a message. The reality in a work environment is that people oftentimes default to e-mail communication, and when they reply, they reply via the same medium as they have received the message in. This means that you are not using the full potential of your communication channel.

We classify communication along the following criteria:

  • Synchronous: Is the message synchronous, or asynchronous?
  • Openness: Is the message private, in a group, or public (company-wide)?
  • Invasive: What is the physical or psychological distance between you and your recipients? How invasive is this message to your personal space?
  • Expressive: How much can you express yourself? Rich communication channels typically trigger multiple senses and allow you to express yourself better.
  • Effort: How much effort is required to create and deliver this message?

Each medium has certain characteristics that you can assess against these criteria. In this article I’ll use the following media, as those are most common in working environments:
E-Mail, Mobile Text Messaging, Company Chat, Phone calls / conferencing, Face-to-face communication. Let’s look at how I would evaluate these media.

E-Mail

  • is an asynchronous medium,
  • can be private (although bcc: should be excluded from that) or semi-open (e.g., group e-mail with multiple recipients, cc:),
  • is low invasive as it is on a device (laptop) typically owned by the company, which people don’t carry with them the full day. (For the sake of argument let’s consider installing your work e-mail on your private phone and keeping notifications on as a form of text messaging. Which you shouldn’t do — but that is a different discussion)
  • offers a poor way to express yourself (text and smileys only) and typically requires high effort to draft a message (if e-mail is done well…)
  • the effort required to draft an e-mail is rather low as you can do this in your own time, and from almost any location

E-Mail is a strong medium to convey written information that need to be written down properly so they can be referred to later, and that are not time critical.

Text Messaging

  • is a semi-synchronous medium, people can respond directly, but may also respond later if they are occupied
  • is typically private (although popular chat and messaging tools support group chats)
  • is more invasive as this is usually on someone’s personal device and on a device that someone carries with them a large time of the day,
  • it offers a poor way to express yourself (text and smileys only)
  • the effort required to send someone a text message is even lower than with e-mail as messages are typically shorter and offer fewer (or no) ways to format the message

Text messaging is a strong medium if you need to ask someone a personal question that can be answered quickly and easily, and is not critically urgent.

Company chat tools

Company chat tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams form a new type of communication medium that is quickly being adopted by many companies.

  • is a semi-synchronous medium, people can respond directly, but may also respond later if they are occupied
  • is typically private (1-to-1) or semi-public (in a “group” or “channel”)
  • is almost equally as invasive as e-mail, although notifications may make this tool feel more invasive.
  • it offers a poor way to express yourself (text and smileys only, or animated gifs)
  • the effort required to send someone a text message is even lower than with e-mail as messages are typically shorter and offer fewer (or no) ways to format the message

Company chat is a strong medium for short communications: a brief question, sharing pieces of information, or sharing information in a group of people.

Phone calls

  • is a synchronous medium,
  • is typically private,
  • is highly invasive as you (most of the time) interrupt someone from his daily routine. Next to that it is also very close, as someone is holding the phone directly to his ear. You are directly connected: mouth to ear.
  • offers a rich way to express yourself. You can’t see someone, but their tone of voice can enhance the message.
  • take some effort, as someone has to dedicate time to give you a call

Phone calls are a great medium when you need to express a personal message that is important to you. Since phone calls are synchronous communication they inherently express a value of urgency: you want to communicate your message directly, and expect a reply in return.

Face-to-face

  • is a synchronous medium,
  • is typically private. An additional important factor is that most face-to-face meetings can be publicly viewed: people can see you talking to someone else. That sets it apart from a phone call where others can’t see who you are speaking to.
  • is invasive and close. You have to be physically close together to have a face-to-face call (let’s exclude Skype etc from this).
  • offers a rich way to express yourself. You can use your intonation and body language to enhance the message. Furthermore, since you can read the body language of the other, you can also get more information from the other person.
  • take high effort, as someone has to be physically in the same space, and dedicate time to speaking to you.

Face-to-face conversations are the core of effective communication. If you want to make sure that your message comes across well face-to-face communication is the way to go. This is the foundation of all human communication. All other forms of communication are derived from this, and inherently are less rich.

Comparing various media

An important consideration for selecting the right communication channel is to determine what the urgency and importance of your message is. Because each communication medium has different characteristics, it is also perceived differently by recipients of your message. As a rule of thumb you should consider synchronous information more important. After all, you are forcing the recipient to reply directly to your message. The more invasive and expressive the channel, the more urgency you can express in your communication.

The graph below displays how urgency and importance can be qualified against the communication channels listed before. Think about what you want to express with your message before you actually send it. You may be disappointed if you send something which is urgent via e-mail and people don’t reply (please note: urgent e-mail doesn’t exist!).

In the remainder of this article I’ll give you some thoughts on how to tailor your message and behavior to your communication medium.

7 insights for more effective digital communication

In the previous section we looked at selecting the right medium for your message. The next step is to make effective use of that medium. In this section I’ll provide some of my reflections on how to make your communication more effective. These are based on typical situations in daily communication where it may lead to frustration and miscommunication. If you learn to tailor your message to your medium you’ll see that your communication gets more effective, and you can get more done in less time.

E-Mail

E-mail has become the default for any form of business communication. It certainly has great benefits, but in my opinion it is overrated, and certainly over-used. Yet, e-mail is not all that bad. It is a useful medium to transfer information in a condensed way.

Insight 1: Properly format and layout your message

Most e-mail clients offer ways to format your message. Use that! Remember that e-mail is a written form of communication. In our long history of written communication we have developed certain standards and best practices for written communication that you should definitely use in e-mail communication. You can be more effective by using headers to clearly communicate different sections or topics in your e-mail. Don’t hesitate to use bullet or numbered lists to structure items. And if you expect someone to do something, or read something specific make use of the ‘@’ functionality. Oh, by the way — you can also make items bold or italic to draw attention to them.

An example of marking a piece of a message to someone in particular

Insight 2: Have a reason for including each and every recipient

Colleague: “I’ll put you in cc:.”

Me: “- Uhm, please don’t”.

My typical reply when someone wants to put me in cc: to keep me informed is to politely decline. It’s not that I don’t want to be informed about work that I’m doing. Yet I prefer to be addressed directly with relevant communication. There are many e-mails that I receive on a daily basis for which I have no clue whether I need to take an action, give a reply, or ‘just to keep you informed’. Remember that for every person that you include in your message you should have a clear reason for including that person. When you send someone an e-mail you ask them to dedicate part of their precious time to your message. Make that message worth their while.

Mobile Text Messaging

Insight 3: Tread carefully

I find the use of mobile text messaging in work environments difficult. Especially because mobile text messaging immediately blurs the boundaries between work and private life. For some people this may be blurry anyway, and they like it like that. However, you cannot assume that this is the same for everyone. By sending someone a text message on his private device — or worse, in his private time — you decide to blur the boundary for that person. Consider this and decide whether you can ask that of the other person.

Furthermore, consider that people suddenly have company communication on their personal device. This may be viewed by their relatives (spouses, children, friends). Are you asking something that they are allowed to see? My advice when using mobile text messaging: tread carefully.

Company Chat

In recent years company chat tools have grown explosively. The first and most well-known is Slack, but it has recently been overtaken by Microsoft Teams.

https://www.statista.com/chart/20028/daily-active-users-of-slack-and-microsoft-teams/

Both tools of a web-based and desktop version of a chat interface, with a lot of options to communicate 1-to-1, in small groups, in big teams or across the whole organisation. The big benefit of this category of chat tools are the flexibility, the ease of use and the low threshold to reach out to others in your organisation. In addition both tools offer excellent ways to share and collaborate on various files. In many companies Microsoft Teams is being used more frequently and is replacing Skype for Business.

Insight 4: Never start a conversation with only greeting someone

Remco: “Hi there!”

(Remco is typing…)

I can only echo what the person behind the website nohello.com has written: don’t make people wait while you are phrasing your question. We know you want to be polite. But a company chat tool is not a face to face communication where you first greet someone and have to do small talk. It is not a problem to start your chat message with greeting someone, but add your question or request directly after that.

Don’t make people wait for your question in asynchronous media

Just compact everything into one single question, allowing the other to respond directly to what you need to know. Like this:

“Hi Remco. Getting back to you about xxx. Did you have time to review that? Could you let me know you thoughts?”

If you don’t agree with me, try the following: Walk up to a colleague and greet them. Then wait 10–15 seconds before continuing the conversation (count it in your head. Slowly). Then reflect on how you felt in that moment, and whether your colleague was also pleased with this. (Hint: I’m sure those 10 seconds feel like an hour)

Insight 5: Don’t mention the whole channel, if you don’t need everyone to read it

Another excellent functionality of Company Chat tools is that they offer ways to mention individuals, but also everyone in a Channel. (If you are unfamiliar with what Channels are you should consider them like a long-lived e-mail thread about a certain topic). However — mentioning the whole Channel should be your last resort. Why? You are asking everyone in that Channel to read the message, because they will get a notification. As an analogy: You don’t walk into a full office and start yelling your questions, do you? Don’t do the same on Company Chat tools.

I understand that people are not sure they want to address someone in particular. But there is a subtle nuance: you can address no one in particular and post your message (=no mention), or you can address everyone and post your message (=mention channel). If you don’t know who to address, it’s best to address no one in particular.

If you don’t know who to address, it’s best to address no one in particular.

(Unless the building is on fire — or an equivalent emergency — and everyone needs to get out immediately. But in that case you would probably also walk into the room and yell out)

Phone calls

Insight 6: Don’t mute…just shut up

Phone call, or Skype calls can be an effective way to communicate with people you are physically co-located with. Yet it seems that we have develop a standard that everyone that is not speaking is muted. While this may seem polite to the speaker — since you are not disrupting them — it psychologically disconnects you from the call.

The two biggest issues are:

  1. You make the communication less fluid for everyone, since you have to unmute yourself everytime you are asked a question, or you want to speak up
  2. You psychologically disconnect from the call

The first point is annoying and is unproductive. However, the second point is more critical. Since others cannot hear what you are doing it is too easy to tune out of the conversation and start doing something else. Checking your e-mail, browsing the web, ordering groceries, unloading the dishwasher, answering the doorbell, etc. It’s a slippery slope once you are muted.

Force yourself to actively participate in the call. Don’t mute. If you really want to participate in that call, find a suitable place to have the call. If there is background noise for which you have to be muted you are not in a suitable place for a call. Consider a call like a regular meeting and behave accordingly.

(The exception is if someone is actually presenting and you watch it remotely. Then you should mute. That’s okay.)

Face-to-face

Insight 7: Tell me your problem, I’ll guide you to the solution

There may be many words of advice that I could give regarding face-to-face communication. However, face-to-face communication is something that is rather personal, and is something that most people control rather well. Therefore I selected a tip that I encounter (almost) on a daily basis. Actually, it is something that I need to continuously remind myself about.

When people come to me they typically say something along the lines of: “We really need to develop feature X for product Y.” The only correct response to this is: “Why?”

Why? People are often stuck in their own perspective when trying to solve a problem. Especially when you are dealing with experts in a domain they have such in-depth knowledge that they may easily get lost in the nitty-gritty details. People try to solve a problem within the solution space they know. However, there may be various other solutions they are simply not aware of.

Instead, it is much better to clearly explain the problem that you are faced with. Other people are likely to think of other solutions, because they have a different perspective.

The solution you have in mind may not be there yet, but there may be alternative solutions to solve your problem.

(Yes, I’m guilty of this too. I continuously have to remind myself that I need to explain the problem I intend to solve, instead of proposing the solution. Once you are aware of this, you can actively steer your behavior, and you’ll notice that it is actually helpful to ask others to think along about possible solutions.)

Concluding

We are blessed with a rich set of media through which we can communicate. Communication in the daily life of a product manager is vital. You should be able to pick the right medium for your message, and tailor your message and behavior to that medium. Each medium has unique characteristics that make it suitable for certain type of communication. Reflect before you act and determine whether you are using the right message for the urgency and importance of your message.

In the second half of this article I’ve given you 7 tips to enhance your daily communication. These are based on my experiences and are ‘easy-wins’ to make you more effective in your communication.

(*) I recently learned that his book is actually called ‘The medium is the massage’ due to an error, but McLuhan kept the error as the official title, because he liked the mistake

Remco Magielse is a product manager at CM.com. CM.com is a high tech company focusing on Conversational Commerce in The Netherlands. He has worked as a system engineer and product manager at Philips Hue. Remco has gained his Ph.D. on the dissertation titled ‘How to design for adaptive lighting environments: Embracing complexity in design’. He writes articles about product and software development, and the hard- and soft-skill required for product management. He is passionate about innovation and has contributed to approximately 50 patents.

Written by

Product Manager by profession with a passion for Innovation. Designer by education. Board Game enthusiast by choice. Fantasy & Sci-fi fan. Father of 2.

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