First, let me start by saying I'm no "Emily Post" or "Dear Abby." But it's often said that one of the biggest problems people have is communicating with each other.
My experience is that face-to-face communications offer the best opportunity to connect, because they involve visual (seeing the person), audio (hearing the person, especially the inflections in their voice), the ability to interact (ask questions and receive responses) quickly, and even touch (it's amazing what a handshake or an appropriate touch can mean).
For better or for worse, our electronic communications can both help and hinder our ability to communicate with other people. Certainly, electronic communications can allow us to communicate over broader distances faster, but it means we won't be face to face.
We've had challenges with communications since people existed on this planet. When we started writing letters to each other, there was the challenge of saying the right thing. Telephones provided more immediacy and the ability to tell nuance, but still was less information than face to face.
Here are some of my observations and experiences of things that have happened to me that have been less-than-effective ways of communicating in a digital age.
What day is that? I see many people saying something like: "Call me tomorrow" or "Let's meet today."
The use of relative dates rarely adds clarity. Specifically, if someone writes a message on Tuesday asking about calling you tomorrow, but you don't see the message until Wednesday, then tomorrow for them is Wednesday, but for you it might be Thursday. Oops. I find I avoid using relative dates or at least qualify them by saying: "Call me tomorrow (Wednesday)." Better yet, simply say: "Call me on Wednesday."
Subject lines needs to be very effective. If I receive an e-mail with a subject line of "A note from Susie", that tells me nothing. For me, the subject line should explain the bottom line of the message, such as "Cheerleading Practice Moved from Tuesday to Wednesday This Week Only." The body of the e-mail can tell me why or who to contact, but I need e-mails with a useful subject line or they risk being unopened.
Who are You? I frequently receive emails from people with cryptic e-mail addresses, such as firstname.lastname@example.org. Who is that? They then either don't sign their name or sign it simply: Susan. I happen to know a lot of people named Susan. Which Susan are you? One of the things I learned as a marketer is to always make it easy for people to contact you. Always sign e-mail messages with your full name and phone number. If this is hard to remember to do, set up your e-mail client to insert what's called a "Signature Block" that will put this information at the bottom of each email. Don't make people guess about your identity.
How Can I Contact you? I frequently receive voicemails from people saying something like: "Hi, this is Sally. Call me to let me know about this Thursday."
Optionally, they may add: "You have my number."
Again, people assume we know who they are and that's usually true, but if I'm picking up a message for my wife or other member of my family, I may have no clue who Sally is. Leave your first and last name. As far as returning a call, I don't always have someone's phone number. Take an extra few seconds and leave your phone number.
How Fast Can You Talk? When people do leave a phone number, why is it that they seem to double or triple the speed of their speech? If anything, speaking slowly and clearly when leaving a phone number is a good thing. Even if you do speak slowly and clearly, the prevalence of mobile phones and the inherent lack of good audio quality has prompted me to not only speak slowly and clearly, but repeat the phone number to ensure that any audio glitch won't prevent someone from hearing my phone number.
We will always have to work at communicating better, but let's not make it harder for people to understand what we're trying to say.
Remember, hearing you and understanding you are two different things. The best message is one that's received and understood as the sender had intended. That responsibility mainly lies with the sender, not the receiver.
Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 18 August 2010.