Know When to Switch the Medium

If you want to know the number one reason workplace communication is perceived as ineffective and even frustrating, you’ve come to the right place.

For years, people have struggled to find the optimal way to manage a meeting and better ways to write emails. It started with tips, tricks, and methods for having the perfect meeting or writing the greatest email. With the emergence of AI-based tools, we are now at the precipice of an era where we will be tempted to delegate our communication to machines instead of solving the problem of ineffective communication. 

However, while we can undoubtedly manage meetings better and be more articulate in emails and text messages, the core of the problem is often neglected. Without addressing it, no AI tool or single trick will make our communication effective. 

The number one reason we fail to communicate effectively is that we don’t know when to switch mediums. We often don’t pick a suitable medium to begin with. 

Think of a typical work week in terms of communication. You send and receive emails; you have some meetings; documents, reports, and other pieces of data and information are shared, and there’s a constant flow of text messages coming in and out. The culture in your organization can affect the communication mix, and so does your role. But I find over and over again that instead of finding the right balance between emails, meetings, shared material, and chats, we should aim to use each of these mediums when it is the best choice given what we are trying to achieve. 

To simplify things, let’s focus on two communication mediums: meetings and email. 

How many meetings do you attend which are purely informative? How many emails do you send and receive that quickly become an endless discussion? Neither one of these is effective. We feel this ineffectiveness. Deep inside, we know we can do better. The reason is not that meetings are problematic or emails are a nightmare. These two communication tools are simply designed and optimized for different needs, and we keep misusing them. 

A face-to-face meeting is costly and requires everyone involved to be available simultaneously. Using this medium just to pass information is wasteful. It’s often dull. Each participant might be interested in different parts of what is presented and needs a different time to process things. There is no value in having everyone in the same room if no deep discussion is planned. 

So why have a meeting? A meeting is the most effective platform for co-creating: brainstorming, finding solutions, debating — all these can benefit from a direct, unmediated, and real-time interaction. Of course, to be effective, a meeting must be well planned, prepared for, and facilitated. But when done right, a face-to-face conversation is irreplaceable in these use cases. 

Text-based mediums such as email and chats become messy, hard to follow, and too distracting to have a really deep and meaningful discussion. Think of all these endless threads where people respond to each other using different colors, indentations, initials, etc. We are not wired to have such a conversation, which quickly creates a bias toward short, contextless statements lacking nuance. 

So why use emails or chats? When you are looking for a short response or confirmation that shouldn’t evolve into a full-featured conversation, a meeting is wasteful. When you want to share information and don’t expect a discussion, an email or, even better, a shared document or report, will do the work just fine and will cost far less. 

Ok, so meetings are for deep discussion, and emails are for sharing information or asking quick questions. 

The reality, of course, is more complicated than that. What I see as information I need to share might be perceived by others as a trigger for discussion; what I believe to require a discussion might be essential but well understood. And that’s precisely where we need to switch mediums. 

If I send an email and start getting too many responses, which I feel I must reply to, I should politely cut the thread and convert it to a meeting. When we can identify this in time, we can save a lot of effort, but more importantly, reach better results because the face-to-face discussion will be deeper and more nuanced. 

When I am in a meeting and at some point, everyone is silent, that could be a sign that as crucial as the information is, a meeting is not really necessary. The meeting can be concluded, and I will share the information later via email. 

Noticing these changes in communication dynamics in real time is not easy but essential. We must start by defining what we aim to achieve and predict the dynamics of the interaction, but our prediction will often be wrong. Only when we are sensitive to these changes during the interaction can we switch medium on time and radically increase the effectiveness of our communication. 

No single tool is the perfect communication tool. Sometimes, we need to switch tools even during an interaction to make the most of everybody’s time, attention, and effort.

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