Choosing the right communication medium

Updated on:

Tyler and I live on opposite coasts, so as you might imagine, we spend a fair amount of time communicating over various channels including email, IM/chat, telephone, and video chat. With rare exceptions, mostly related to graphical discussions, I don't think our work is made any harder by using these channels as opposed to meeting face to face (and may be helped to some extent).

Given the many ways to discuss ideas, projects, and the like, it seems worthwhile to think about the strengths and weaknesses of various options. The main differences between the media, at least in my eyes, come along four dimensions:

  1. Permanence/records
  2. Scheduling flexibility
  3. Topic flexibility
  4. Multitasking compatibility

So here's how the various options stack up along those axes, in order of most used to least:

The benefits of email are pretty well laid out, but it's worth reiterating them. Email is king at the first two points. Assuming one archives messages, every email communication is cataloged, providing a searchable comprehensive record. Most text chat options have similar permanence, but I personally find searching through chat logs significantly more difficult. Email also provides extreme scheduling flexibility relative to the other options which require both people to be present at the same time. For Tyler and myself, who are separated by 3 time zones (plus a few more hours in terms of our effective work schedules), such flexibility is key. Multitasking is clearly pretty good as well, although the scheduling flexibility also means crafting an email can take more time than it should if you're not careful. Email's main deficiency is topic flexibility, as it's difficult to shift gears quickly in an email thread.

IM/text chat
Tyler and I are basically always chatting online when we're both working, as a way to run quick questions by each other or to flesh out some ideas. As mentioned above, assuming you have decent chat logs, the permanence scores well, though the difficulty of retracing a chat marks it down a touch. Scheduling flexibility is ok, only in as much as chat is the hands down multitasking winner in my opinion, and is thus accessible at almost any time. There are very few circumstances that prevent a quick chat conversation, even compared to email. Topic flexibility is also a win for chat, as the permanent but instant format let's one switch topics with ease, without abruptly abandoning previous topics.

Voice/video chat
If you've been keeping track, I've already doled out top prize for the four categories to email (permanence, scheduling) and chat (topic flexibility, multitasking), which doesn't leave much for voice and video calls. Keeping records of these calls is always difficult (and we usually use email if there are important points to remember). The scheduling flexibility is not good, particularly for video. And the topic flexibility is ok, but can be trickier in these media than something like chat, where it's easy to switch back to the main topic after a tangent by looking through the history.

The real win for these types of media, however, comes from their complete failure at multitasking. When on the phone and even moreso on video, your attention is necessarily focused on the conversation. Ty and I have started having video calls on a roughly weekly basis, and they have really provided a great complement to our other forms of communication. Given this, I think the voice call is pretty much dead for Tyler and myself, but the video call will live on as the ultimate conversation unitasker.

I sum up
Anyway, that's my take on things, as an analysis of what works for us, but I definitely think it informs the strengths and weaknesses of various options. For Tyler and myself, in-person meetings aren't a real option, but it's worth thinking about where they'd fall in the above categories. In almost all respects, they're really just an even more effective unitasker than video or voice. It's hard to think of them as such, and there are certainly other advantages, but for a quick chat or a detailed response, I'd imagine IM and email, respectively, are generally better options. Either that, or this is all just sour grapes.

Sign up to receive updates in your inbox

We'll send you about two emails per month with tips on how to optimize your LACRM account, and grow your small business. Be the first to hear about product updates, and beta testing opportunities!