Are Real-Life Interruptions The Best Email Hack Ever?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a face-to-face conversation with a colleague must be worth about a million email threads.

If you absolutely need to make yourself clear to your colleague, Behance's William Allen has a potentially incendiary hack to suggest: FaceMail.

He explained how it works at 99u:

My colleagues Zach and Jackie coined the word "FaceMail" for the age-old act of walking over to your colleague's desk and starting a conversation. A few minutes of face-to-face conversation eliminates days of email threads.

In elevating face-to-face interactions above overly mediated ones, Allen echoes advice that antedates email itself: David Ogilvy, the incomparable ad man and super prolific writer, encouraged a "crusade against paper warfare." That is, instead of having everybody sending memos to one another about why the person was wrong, they should "air their disagreements face-to-face."

Why? Because analog does things that digital can't, both in shaping ideas and interacting with people. Think about the total sum of information that gets transferred if you're texting with your friend about where to get lunch versus speaking over the phone: on the phone you hear the tone of their voice, if they're pausing for emphasis, and if they say "like" way too much. Over text you get the words themselves, but fewer of these less-linguistic signals, which can get misleading (or offensive).

Let's review the logic:

  1. If we want to understand each other, we have to communicate clearly.
  2. If we want to communicate clearly, we have to (sometimes) talk in person.
  3. If we want to (sometimes) talk in person, we have to be interruptible.

So what is interruptibility? The uncommon ability to unglue yourself from your focus to talk with your people. As Allen says:

But there is an important prerequisite to this form of (face-to-face) communication: be interruptible. If you are too busy to listen to your team, don’t expect them to make the time to listen to each other. Yes, you might occasionally lose the deep focus you had when you were interrupted. But an in-person conversation alleviates one of the greatest drains on company resources—a lack of clarity—so it generally is a worthy trade-off.

The next question, then, is to figure out how we can still find deep focus while allowing for productive interruptions. The answer might be to start your day in a cave doing the most complex work, then become interruptible once you're working on simpler tasks.

Hat tip: 99u

[Image: Flickr user Anna Levinzon]

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  • Matt Boyd

    Hey Drake, Love this article! I definitely agree with you and really enjoyed the term "facemail". Unfortunately, in remote teams, walking over to discuss with people is a bit more difficult. We built Sqwiggle for this exact purpose! Sqwiggle is an always on video workroom that allows you to just click on someone's picture and instantly start talking with HD video.

    It's kind of crazy to watch Sqwiggle take flight in small and large companies alike. We have some companies that have over 100 people in their workroom, which is super exciting! This creates an atmosphere for "watercooler" discussion that's not only culture building, but collaborative. Anyway, I really appreciated this article and hope to see more along these lines! Thanks.

    – Matt
    Co-founder of Sqwiggle

  • robbyGregg

    while making (a portion of) your current tasks interruptible in order to talk to people who have made the effort to walk to your desk for facetime, your conversations with them should also be un-interrupted by phone calls, smartphone notifications and the like - this is of course within some bounds that you can establish early in the conversation.

  • zstepien

    Talking to people always gets best results, it is an art though to know when to interrupt someone, and sometimes that moment might never come, which is why so many people default to emails. It is not just the lack of clarity, however, that is the downside of emails - by talking face to face we can cut out the accidental (and sometimes not so) passive aggressiveness that we might often fall into.

  • enzomedici

    The problem is that every Facemail conversation at work starts with "I just sent you an email". Well, then why bother talking to me? Either talk to me or send me an email, I don't need both. On the flip side, talking to me is good, but I don't want to hear your voicemails because I haven't listened to one of those in over 10 years. I'm not going to sit around while you ramble on about nothing. Text me. Thanks.

  • Jayson Feltner

    Nothing beats a little face to face conversation. Email has it's place and is great for assigning tasks but works best as a back up to reinforce a face to face conversation I feel. I like this FaceMail.