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Phone Call or Email

I’ve repeated countless times in past articles about the importance of open and transparent communications being the lifeblood of a successful project or program. This week I’m going to dive right back into the pool and talk about how and when it’s appropriate (or not appropriate) to use email and go right to a phone call.

Email is a favorite form of communication for several reasons. We can send a message at any time we decide (or are told), we can carefully craft our messages to hold just the right tone (we hope) and we can also determine who sees our message (even blindly via the Bcc). There are obvious advantages to using email as a form of communication.

  • Logistically you can broadcast your message to the masses (in the case of geographically dispersed teams) quickly and efficiently.

  • You can ensure that everyone sees the exact same message (thereby eliminating the first layer of the ‘telephone game’)

  • It’s traceable, meaning that you can always refer back to it in a future conversation

But when is email not so good for delivering your message? Ever been included in an email conversation that had five or more recipients, all who liked to type (a lot) before sending? You could come back from lunch to a novel sitting in your inbox that could take you hours to pore over and extract the necessary details like pulling a needle from a haystack. Collaboration should not be done over email. The whole point of collaborating with team members/stakeholders is to engage in the exchange of ideas in a fluid conversation. Quick responses, the ability to quickly explain or elaborate on points and most importantly – ensuring that you understand and are understood are all thrown out the window when relying on email to communicate in this fashion. I’m often caught telling my team members (who are all remote from where I work) that a 10 minute conversation will often replace two hours of emails.

The other downfall of email is that it can create an artificial tone during decoding by the reader. As we read the email, we make assumptions on the writer’s tone which at times can create conflict out of nothing which then adds another layer of issues on top of the ones you were originally trying to solve. This can lead to team disruption or even worse, negative client engagement.

So what are some rules of thumb for using email over a phone call?

  • Are you intending to engage in a collaborative, two-way conversation? Use a phone call.

  • Do you need to send a message to a number stakeholders informing them of specific details? Email will do just fine.

  • Are you engaged with a heated individual? Phone calls are a great way to connect and build relationships when face to face isn’t available.

  • Do you need to have a record of your message for possible future reference? Email is the choice.

There’s no prescriptive ‘thou-shalt’ list of if-then-else guidelines on when to use email over a phone call but as you develop your own communication style (and understand the styles of your team and stakeholders), you will need to be cognizant of what works best in each unique situation. Hopefully these tips will help you craft your own style of communication.

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