Choose the best medium for your message in the workplace

Email? IM? Phone call? Here’s how to pick the best way to communicate.
By Hannah Pitstick

With more ways to communicate than ever before, choosing the most appropriate medium for your message has become a conundrum in the workplace. It can be difficult to decide when to use email, IM, or the phone, or to meet someone in person.

Here are tips from CPAs and workplace communication experts on when to choose different methods of communication in the office:

Use email when:

  • You can keep things short and to the point. Your clients or co-workers probably get a lot of email, meaning yours may get lost in the shuffle. Therefore, keep emails as short as possible —no longer than a few sentences at most.

    "My rule is if it takes you more than a few minutes to figure out what you're going to write in the email, you need to be talking to the [other person] in person or over the phone," said Kelly Mann, CPA, a former senior manager at Seim Johnson LLP, who has now launched Kelly Mann, CPA, LLC, a niche firm focusing on employee benefit plan audits.

    If there's no way around sending an email with a lot of information, put the bulk of the information in an attachment and summarize it in the body of the email, said Mann, an AICPA Leadership Academy graduate.

Use a phone call when:

  • You anticipate follow-up questions. Email can sometimes lead to a lot of back-and-forth and wasted time if the person you're emailing has questions. In cases where you expect questions, such as when you're following up with a client, it's usually more efficient to pick up the phone, Mann said.
  • You need to give someone bad news. Avoid using email when you need to send negative feedback, said Jay Sullivan, author of Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond.

    "Email is a wonderful way to give people a quick pat on the back, to say 'great job,' or 'I really appreciated your help with the project.' It's a horrible medium for giving anybody any type of bad news," he said.

    When you do need to send bad news, call the other person or meet with them face-to-face instead. "It makes a huge difference when you put your time out there as opposed to delivering negative news through an email," said Sullivan, who is also managing partner at Exec|Comm, a business communication skills consulting company.

  • When you're not sure how someone will respond to your words. Don't "hide behind the email," Sullivan cautioned. "If you're conscious [your message] could be interpreted a lot of different ways, then pick up the phone" or schedule a call with the other person instead, he said.

Meet in person when:

  • You want to build a closer relationship with someone. Meeting in person is not always practical or necessary, but when you want to facilitate a genuine relationship with colleagues and clients, seeing them face-to-face is usually the best way to do so, said Eric L. Hansen, CPA, CGMA, chair of the AICPA and chief operational officer at BKD.

    "To the extent that it's practical, I always believe that a face-to-face conversation is best, because communication isn't just the written word or what you speak," he said. "There's so much more to communication in terms of body language, how you express yourself, and the way you can effectively communicate face-to-face versus typing something in an email or message."

Text, IM, or communicate over social media when:

  • The person you're communicating with has used these methods to reach out to you before. A good general rule when choosing a communication method is to follow the other person's lead. Just about any mode of communication can be appropriate if it's a client or co-worker's preferred way to reach you. Mann said she texts clients all the time, for example, but would typically only do so if they texted her first.

    And, though texting and social media can seem casual, don't rule out using them altogether, Mann said. If you use them in a professional manner, they can even be an advantage in the workplace.  

    "I get leads through Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, and text messaging," she said. "We as professionals need to be open to how our clients or prospective clients are communicating."

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. To comment on this story, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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