Are we over-communicating in today’s digital era?
What topic gets raised by just about every management consultant, psychologist, counsellor and often your line manager? It's communication, defined as 'a two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants not only exchange (encode-decode) information, news, ideas and feelings but also create and share meaning.' (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/communication.html)
It's the silver bullet to success in business and in relationships - that one thing there is always too little of.
Through all the years of hammering on about a lack of communication, I believe we have created a new virus called 'blah blah blah' aka over-communication. The digital explosion created the perfect breeding ground for this virus with email, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS, Slack, Instagram, LinkedIn and the list goes on. I often run out of time just trying to manage my various mediums of communication as it is a matter of different strokes for different folks. One person prefers WhatsApp, the other email, the other Slack. So what you might say. You have them all on one device right?
Precisely the problem, as 20 people can communicate to you at the same time using 10 different mediums on one device. Can you see the challenge? It’s like trying to bat while five bowling machines are firing at you at the same time.
Okay, don’t get me wrong communication is crucial but with all the digital communication platform options available today, we now have the tendency to over communicate. Large-scale communication is easier to do with options like cc, send to all, reply to all and sharing to groups. However, having a constant barrage of notification sounds attacking your eardrums is also not fun and can be distracting.
Case in point: I have different sounds set up on my phone for messages coming from different mediums - better known as Freda. She is my best companion, besides my wife and kids, if I really make work of it. So Freda goes running with me to track my slow progress on Strava. For the last two years, I have shut Freda up during a run, as it was starting to sound like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Messages from different mediums were continually flowing in, and instead of enjoying my run I ended up counting the number of emails I received in 10kms.
This over-communication virus is like a criminal stealing our time and focus. There is not much we can do from a social perspective as there will always be the “hockey group” covering plenty of topics besides hockey. However, companies and individuals can make a difference in the fight to cure this virus. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Companies should pick 2 mediums of communication and stick with them.
If you want to share information or news relevant to all staff then either use mediums like Slack or email. If specific groups or divisions within the company want to create a WhatsApp group for team communication that's also fine. However, all staff comms should be done via the company recognised mediums only.
2. Select your audience
Make sure that you are reaching the relevant people who need to receive the message in the first place. Too often emails received via 'reply to all' are time wasters and inbox hoggers.
We often send emails to all just to cover the ground and to have the backdoor option to say: “I did send you the email last year.” The problem is I am receiving a thousand emails from people with the same view. Therefore the challenge is how to pick the ones that really matter.
3. Adopt a culture of think before you 'Reply to all'.
I also believe in recognition and that we should let all staff know when someone achieved something great. You've likely received that email before where 'John' is congratulated for his excellent work or for a new customer win. However, what tends to happen? People start replying to all to have their own congratulatory wish for John. What began as one email ends up as ten - on the same topic.
4. Keep it short and straightforward.
There should be a rule: if your email exceeds 400 words then instead schedule a meeting. A five-minute Zoom or Skype meeting might be much more effective. I know there are exceptions like a monthly company newsletter, etc. However, an email to provide “quick” feedback must be a quick read.
5. Use clear and descriptive subject lines
Something a colleague recently pointed out to me is the effective use of the subject line of a message. After fifty “replies”, sixty “forwards” and an email trail as long as the Wall of China, is the original subject still relevant when forwarding the message to a new reader? Clear, descriptive subject lines can be a huge help in the mission to manage communication effectively.
6. Use communication groups with care
When creating groups make the objective very clear. If it is an Exco group to communicate executive decisions and actions, then stick to it. Don’t use the group to sympathise with the CEO for only completing the first leg of the Wine to Whales because he missed two months of cadence classes trying to catch up on his communication.
I don’t want to take the fun and personal touch out of business but create a separate fun group for this purpose. A group you know you can ignore if extremely busy without the risk of missing an important Exco decision. Use communication mediums wisely.
Instead of abusing the digital communication mediums available to us let's go back to the basics of communication:
- Greet people in the office with a simple “Good morning” or “Goodbye”. Please do this in person and not via a digital medium.
- Communicate with respect and not with attitude because you are sitting on the other side of the screen. The other person can't see your face and body language and your writing tone may be misunderstood. (Unless you have a Skype or video call)
- Think before you write and read before you send.
I acknowledge that there are heroes out there who have their communication under control. (Hats off to you!) However, I am sure there are others like me fighting the battle against the 'blah blah blah' and getting to the 'Ja Ja Ja,' i.e. having it under control.
So let's focus on effective communication within our companies. Afterall, we only have 24 hours a day, and we cannot buy more time.