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How to decide whether to email, text, call, or talk in person

It may seem simple, but lots of people make the wrong choice.

How to decide whether to email, text, call, or talk in person
[Photo: rawpixel.com/Pexels]

Thanks to technology, we have a wealth of choices for communicating in the office and beyond. But herein lies the challenge. Email someone when you should have called and you might waste time going back and forth, or they might misunderstand your tone. Text your new boss when you should have emailed and you might risk her thinking you’re unprofessional.

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Below are some of the most common channels for communication, and the ways to use—and not abuse—them on the job. Sure, some of these rules are fairly intuitive, but as workplace norms change, a little refresher never hurt.

 1. Face-to-Face 

Speaking face-to-face with someone is still best. “Every other method of communicating is just simulating person-to-person communicating,” says Jon Robinson, president of Lunar, a software and services company focused on sales and marketing. Whenever possible, seek out these one-on-one situations.

Group meetings are great, but since they’re more public, they’re not necessarily a good time to approach your boss, or anyone else, for a decision. Instead try a one-on-one meeting, a quick chat in the coffee room, or a walk to the parking lot (assuming the other person isn’t in a big rush). Or pop your head in your boss’s office and say, “Do you have a minute?” The beauty of these quick exchanges is that you can get an answer that propels you forward with a project or decision.

To make the most of more impromptu encounters, prepare! Know exactly what your message is and what you want from this exchange. You may have only 30 seconds, so get it right.

 2. Email

Sending emails is standard protocol, but here, too, you’ll want to refine your skills.

The beauty of email is that you can fully convey your thoughts on an important issue. You can do anything from propose an idea to your boss, to thank someone for hosting an event, to invite someone to become a customer.

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The challenge of emails is that you need to structure them clearly and persuasively—or no one will bother to read them. You can also warm up your emails to sound more relaxed and friendly. For starters, use real, conversational language. Don’t say “in order to” when you can say “to.” Don’t say “however” when you can say “but.” Break up longer sentences into shorter ones. In short, write the way you speak.

3. Text

Texting at work is becoming more and more popular, but it requires an especially deft touch.

At best, it’s an easy and friendly way of getting in contact, whether you’re letting a colleague know you loved the conversation you had over lunch, or telling your boss that you’re stuck in traffic and will be 10 minutes late for a meeting. These are quick hits that make you look responsible.

For these reasons, texting is becoming more acceptable in a range of business situations. Robinson’s company just released a study that shows you can successfully engage clients with text messaging. When asked, “Do you approve of a sales person with whom you have a relationship communicating by text?” 69% of respondents said “yes.” When asked “What is the easiest channel for you to respond to?” 53% of respondents said text, while only 41% said email.

Clearly, consumers are expecting—and even preferring—texts from salespeople and businesses in general. In his firm’s survey, Robinson says that prospective customers who receive text messages are twice as likely to convert from being a lead to becoming a customer.

But there are plenty of downsides to texting, too. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, writer Te-Ping Chen tells the tragic tale of an employee who meant to text “I luv u” to his wife but accidentally texted his boss. Learn from his mistake: Double-check to see who you’re texting, and make sure to proofread it, too. A typo will always reflect poorly on you.

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“Make sure when you send a text, the recipient will feel comfortable with it,” says Robinson. “If done the wrong way, texting can lead to feelings of intrusion.”

4. Phone and Voice Mail

Phone calls can be effective, depending on the situation. If you have a close relationship, you can call someone’s cell, and you may get her on the line. But if you don’t know that person well, don’t call someone’s personal phone number. For example, if you’re interviewing for a job, you’ll not likely impress if you call the VP’s phone.

In addition, a work line should be your last resort for communicating. Chances are, no one will pick up (because who picks up business phones any more?).

Leaving a voice mail is similarly ineffective. How many people will actually scroll through their messages and reply? If you actually want to connect with someone, try a different option.

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About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She also recently established EQUOS Corp., a company focused on delivering emotional intelligence training to the fitness, medical, and business sectors

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