Email, instant messaging, Web conferencing, blogs. So many new ways of communicating—and yet they've paradoxically made it harder for leaders to get their messages across effectively. As the number of virtual communication methods continues to expand—have you started your video blog yet?—we spoke with Alan L. Nelson, a partner in the communication strategy consultancy CRA Inc., for guidance. He has worked with leaders at companies such as McDonald's, PepsiCo, and Capital One to help them embrace these tools, understand how and when to use them, and make sure they can get their messages across.
1. Match the Medium To the Message
You don't fire 10,000 people in an email. You don't announce a major restructuring via Webcast. Choose the appropriate tool for each communication event based on the complexity of your message and its strategic importance. As the significance rises, so does the need to meet face-to-face. You may have a full quiver of devices, but not all will hit the bull's-eye.
2. Be Obsessively On Message
Ten years ago, there were fewer ways to address a company and few opportunities to do it. Now it's the inverse. Employees get 500 emails a day. Messages from the CEO don't register like they used to. In order to be heard, leaders must beat the same drum. "Find a way to tie what you're saying into the bigger message," says Nelson. "Or don't communicate it."
3. Authenticity Matters More Than Ever
The best blogs are popular because they have a ring of authenticity. The coming of video phones and, yes, video blogging will only make authenticity even more valued. So for leaders, the ante is raised: You have to match that tone or suffer the consequences. That doesn't mean you have to be completely transparent—just honest about what you can say.
4. Live By the Blacberry, Die By It
If you're spending more than five minutes on an email, make it a phone call. Then follow up with a tactical email. A recent study shows that constantly checking email, voice mail, and so on temporarily lowers your IQ more than smoking marijuana does. "Email makes you dumb," Nelson says. If you want to be productive, it helps to eliminate constant distractions.
5. Rev Up a Dashboard
What's the next technology changing the way leaders communicate? According to Nelson, it's personalized Web-based dashboards that let a leader get a snapshot of internal and external information rather than having to sift through masses of material. Instead of visiting HR's Web site to learn about a new policy, you'll find it on the dashboard. The key for leaders is to recognize that this window into their team and their business isn't a substitute for communicating with people.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.