I Can Relate

The joys and challenges of relating with others.

Why The Medium Matters As Much As The Message

4 questions to ask before you talk, type, or text

What comes to mind when you hear about the communication blunders of these real people?

The shy fiancée who ended her two-year engagement with the text message “it’s over.”

The boyfriend who popped the marriage question through a post on Facebook.

The team member who “called out” another in a mass email to all team members.

Oh my! These errors are particularly bad. But even if you are unlikely to make a blunder of this magnitude, you can still learn from their mistakes. What we’re witnessing in these examples is a mismatch between the content of a message and the way the message is sent—a contemporary problem with so many ways of communicating today.

Have you ever thought you were communicating clearly, but for whatever reason you weren’t getting your message across? It may not be your message; it may be the medium

What’s a medium, you ask? It’s not the thing that comes between small and large. Here, medium refers to the channel we use to communicate, and we’ve come a long way from skywriting and Morse code. Today we phone, email, text, Skype, chat, tweet, or blog. With all of these options, we must choose not only what to communicate, but how to communicate it. Problems occur when we select the wrong medium for a particular message—or we stay with a medium that isn’t working. So, how can we match the medium to the message? Here are some things to consider.

How complicated or personal is the message?

A few years ago I had an unfortunate and heated misunderstanding with a co-worker who I adore, simply because we used email to discuss a complicated topic. For issues that require a certain amount of nuance, or have emotional undertones, it’s best to communicate face-to-face or over the phone. If you begin on email and things start to go south, quickly schedule a meeting. We often think email is far more efficient, and it can be for certain things, but it can also be the wrong choice when a sensitive subject is involved.

Face-to-face or phone conversations are also appropriate when you want to offer an explanation or give your partner a chance to contribute. In other words, when you engage in dialogue. Think about how you’d most like to be approached regarding a topic. If you hope a person would talk directly to you, it’s best that you do that too. When in doubt, communicate face-to-face. There aren’t a lot of drawbacks and it always makes a good impression when you care enough to show up.

Is it time sensitive?

Written communication is great for formal messages and for casual ones too. Think of invitations to events, thank you notes, business memos, or just a quick hello. These messages are not immediately time-sensitive. When you send written messages (emails, handwritten notes, texts, and so on) and expect an immediate response, you may be setting yourself up for problems. You might start filling in the absence of communication with crazy ideas about what the other person is thinking. If you choose a non-immediate form of communication, be sure to allow your partner adequate response time.

Do you need a record?

Written communication is also helpful when you want a record of the interaction. This is why written wills have taken over those that were oral. If you have a lot of details to convey, a written message works well. But be careful not to use a written medium to avoid a needed face-to-face encounter. Choose the medium that works best for topic, not one that hides you from a difficult or awkward conversation. If written commentary can assist or reaffirm a face-to-face meeting, use both to your advantage. Sometimes a combination of verbal and written communication is the best choice.

Who needs to know?

Some communication modes are one-to-one and some involve multiple parties. Whether you receive an individual or group message impacts how the message is perceived. In my field we have a saying: “The medium is the message.” This means that whether you Tweet a message to thousands of people or make a one-to-one phone call makes a difference in how the message is interpreted. The medium you choose is actually now an important part of the message.

If only one person truly needs to receive a message, avoid sending the message to multiple parties, including blind copying someone who knows the story but clearly shouldn’t be involved. If the blind copied person responds, there can be drama, hurt feelings, or worse. We’ve all seen it. Such an event will profoundly alter the meaning of the message.

Selecting the right medium for your message is like selecting the right shirt for your pants, but it’s often more important. Without the proper match, you may seem confusing and the meaning of your message can be lost or misinterpreted. Whatever you’re wearing, selecting the right medium for your message will greatly assist in conveying the message you want.      

What about you?  Have you had crazy message-to-medium mishaps? Feel free to share!

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author the newly released COMMIT TO WIN: How To Harness the Four Elements of Commitment To Reach your Goals (Hudson Street Press), available at Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Connect on TwitterFacebook, and at www.heidireeder.com.

Thanks to Amanda Stewart for conceiving the original idea for this blog entry.

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication at Boise State University.

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