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What email, IM, and the phone are each good for

Email vs. chat debate illustrated by a computer with a megaphoe and empty speech bubble

Email vs. chat: When we default to email, we might be hampering productivity.

Kelly Decker, Ben Decker

A few weeks ago, I saw an email in my inbox from a member of my sales team. I realized an appropriate response would take more time than I had at that moment. So I skipped it, planning to return to it later. The email quickly got buried, and after a week went by, it was forwarded to me again, with a note: “Wanted to make sure you received this.” This time, I picked up the phone, and after a five-minute discussion, he got what he needed.

We default to email to connect with people—to the tune of 122 business emails, on average, per person per day. And while email is great for recaps, updates, and other informational exchanges, there are many situations where it’s not the best form of communication. In fact, it can slow you down or muddle an important message, such as in the example above.

So email vs. chat? As the person sending the message, it’s your job to select the right vehicle for what you’re trying to convey or ask. Your colleagues have plenty on their own to-do lists. In order to get the response you need, when you need it, you must make it as easy as possible for the recipient to get back to you—and this is where choosing the right medium makes a difference. To determine whether it is more effective to IM someone, send an email, pick up the phone, or schedule a meeting, ask two questions:

What is the nature of the subject? Is it specific and purely informational? Then an IM or email may be the best route. But if there are complex details and nuances—or if you’re dealing with a sensitive topic—a phone call or quick face-to-face might be more appropriate. And if your message requires input from multiple stakeholders, you’ll likely want to plan a conference call or meeting.

What type of response do you need? There is a major difference between answering, “Will you be joining us for lunch before the team meeting?” and “Can you give me the details about the work we did for the client during Q2?” You want to make it easy for people to respond by choosing the most convenient route. If your request is urgent, how can you help someone respond quickly? Perhaps with an IM. If you’re looking for a more detailed answer, then it might be more useful to get on the phone so they don’t have to craft a long email.

Once you answer these two questions, you’ll know which route is best to get the response you need. The next step is crafting your message in a way that efficiently cues up context and a response. Consider these tips for using popular communication methods more effectively:

IM is efficient

The quickening pace of today’s workplace means it’s often easier to ping someone than to walk over to her desk, especially if the response you need is finite and a quick answer. Of course, office culture also dictates whether or not it is acceptable to message or text someone. Just remember that if you don’t need a response immediately, IM is probably not the best way to reach out. To get the answer you need:

• Give a bit of context. Just because the subject is top of mind for you does not mean someone else is thinking about it too. You want to provide just enough context to get you both on the same page: “I’m finalizing the purchase order. What’s the name of our contact at Acme Co.?” “Working on the board slides – how many new hires did we have last year?” “Figuring out transportation – will you be joining us for lunch?”

• Stick to three questions or less. Think of IM as a great place to get an immediate answer to keep the ball moving—not as a place to collaborate. If you have more than two follow-up questions, you probably want to pick up the phone.

Handwritten notes feel special

Ideal for an RFP, follow-up to an interview, or a special thanks to team members, old-fashioned notes still have a place in business. And usually no response is expected. They’re useful for getting someone’s attention, gaining a competitive advantage, and connecting on an emotional level. A sticky note that says, “The meeting went great,” might linger longer than an email. Notes can also be surprisingly persuasive and serve as more effective reminders, particularly if you stop to hand-deliver them. But, of course, don’t overdo it. Save handwritten memos for special moments so you don’t clutter people’s desks. Keep in mind:

• You have to write legibly. Make your message as readable as possible. This also means keep it brief.

• Don’t let lag time hold you back. People resist sending handwritten notes when they want more immediate action. In this case, send the handwritten note as a lead-in. For example, “A proper thank you is on the way . . .” is a nice way to get, and keep, someone’s attention. (Just be sure it really is.)

Calls can be easier

When you have a lot to say or are dealing with a sensitive topic, a quick chat on the phone or in person is more ideal than volleying emails back and forth. And if you’re engaging multiple people, that’s when you want to schedule a more structured meeting or conference call. To make these run smoothly:

• Give people enough time to prepare. Be sure that people have been able to think through a thorough response—and have time to talk. If someone’s on deadline or about to meet a client, you’re better off postponing your conversation.

• Give context. You often need to bring people up to speed on the who, what, where, when, and why up front. As opposed to writing, speaking gives you more room to do this.

But if email really is the best option . . .

At least make it more manageable, by forcing yourself to remember to:

• Manage your recipients. Put the correct people in the “To” and “CC” lines. If you want to keep people in the loop, but they don’t need to act or respond, CC them. And be careful of “reply all,” which is undoubtedly one of the most abused email functions. Reserve this for when the subject is relevant to everyone on the thread.

• Write your subject line as if it will be searched later. It will be. So it helps to include the action needed and the deadline. One of our clients prefaces each subject with IO (Information Only) or AR (Action Required) – for example, “IO: Q1 Town Hall Recap.” You can also change the subject to keep the chain relevant. So if you’re done with Meeting Recap, you can change the subject to “Next step assignments Due by Thursday.”

• Lead with the bottom line. Don’t go into all the details without a two-sentence “here’s the deal” executive summary first. If the bottom line is, “I’m not sure what the next step is. Can you review this new proposal before tomorrow at 3pm?” then lead with that. With people reading email on their phones and in between meetings, you want to be sure to cut to the chase.

• Keep it short. Long emails can be especially daunting on a smartphone screen. Leave out any fluffy details so your core message doesn’t get lost.

Being able to get your point across most effectively is increasingly necessary in today’s workplace. This means taking responsibility for the way you choose to communicate—in terms of the vehicle with which you are communicating and the words you use. Remember, when it comes to business writing, you’re in charge of getting the response you need from people. If you make it as convenient as possible for them to give it to you, everyone wins.

This article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.


Portrait of Kelly Decker

Kelly Decker

Kelly Decker is a leading expert in the field of business communication. With Ben Decker, she runs Decker Communications, a global firm that trains and coaches tens of thousands of executives a year. She is also coauthor of "Communicate to Influence: How to Inspire Your Audience to Action," which shares real-world stories and tips from the C-Suite that apply to us all.

Portrait of Ben Decker

Ben Decker

Ben Decker is a leading expert in the field of business communication. With Kelly Decker, he runs Decker Communications, a global firm that trains and coaches tens of thousands of executives a year. He is also coauthor of "Communicate to Influence: How to Inspire Your Audience to Action," which shares real-world stories and tips from the C-Suite that apply to us all.