how to … get the message across

by 16 Oct 2007

In my last job I received an email from a supervisor that ended with “Don’t worry about it!”, which of course left me worrying about that statement. Was it a literal request? Sarcastic? Suggestive? Rhetorical? And what did the exclamation mark mean?

Once I resolved the ensuing misunderstanding, I realised that email is best served straight. Without the inflections and tonal variations of speech, there’s no room for emotional subtlety.

Email has given us immense levels of efficiency (just imagine drafting and posting every email you send daily as a written letter), but some believe it’s a dangerously flawed communication tool.

Some key business leaders have gone so far as to say that as soon as email strays away from short transfers of facts and resolutions, it becomes like barnacles on the ship of workplace progress and innovation.

At work, we go to great lengths to ensure we get the content of the message right, but all can be lost if we use the wrong medium for communicating it.

Never forget the recipient

A key danger is losing the personal touch – the information transfer that occurs between the words. It’s now commonly accepted that between 60 and 90 percent of a message is conveyed through non-verbal cues.

But it’s not as simple as dismissing email entirely. We all know those people who naturally thrive when ‘it’s in writing’. When it comes to receiving tasks, they feel secure that what’s required of them is unambiguous and documented.

Then there’s appropriateness. Some messages simply must be put in writing, especially when task accountability is crucial.

The trick is to know when to use which medium when and for whom.

Competing with gender

Most of us won’t be surprised to read that gender plays a role in communication mode preferences.

While exceptions to the rule are all around us, researchers acknowledge that broadly, men prefer email, while for women face-to-face is the way to go.

New research, however, is identifying myriad factors that can either minimise or enhance these differences.

For example, the notion of ‘oneness’ can be pivotal. While women generally prefer face-to-face interactions, this preference is magnified even more when they perceive things in common with another woman (high level of ‘oneness’)

Conversely, when men don’t perceive much in common with the other party, they move more and more to email – a space where they do not feel the need to be competitive and are better able to concentrate on the arguments at hand.

Despite the gender differences, what you have in common can be most salient. When competitive feelings are high, try switching to email. If you want to persuade someone with whom you have a cooperative relationship, whatever their gender, face-to-face might suit.

Getting up from your desk and walking across the office may lose some valuable time in the short-term, but you might just save more in getting it right the first time around, bringing people on side at times when it really counts.

Don’t think of the value of the personal touch as being lost; more likely, email has just helped us appreciate it a bit more.

By Di Pierce, facilitator and program manager, Australian Women & Leadership Forum (

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