12 Ways to Improve Online Communication

April 19, 2013

Something wrong with my pcOverarching consideration: Use the right mode of communication – often e-mail or texting are not the right ways to communicate a particular message.

1. Do not treat online notes like a conversation. In normal conversation we use the feedback of body language to modify our message, pace, tone, and emphasis in order to stay out of trouble. In e-mail or in texting, we do not have this real-time feedback.

2. Keep messages short. A good e-mail or text should take only 15-30 seconds to read (texts as little as 2-3 seconds) and absorb. Less is more in online communication. Try to have the entire message fit onto the first screen. When a messages goes “over the horizon,” the reader does not know how long it is, which creates a psychological block.

3. Establish the right tone upfront. Online messages have a momentum. If you start on the wrong foot, you will have a difficult time connecting. The “Subject” line and the first three words of a note establish the tone.

4. Remember the permanent nature of e-mails. Using e-mail to praise helps people remember the kind words. Using e-mail to be critical is usually a bad idea because people will re-read the note many times.

5. Keep your objective in mind. Establish a clear objective of how you want the reader to react to your note. For sensitive notes, write the objective down. When proofreading your note, check to see if your intended reaction is likely to happen. If not, reword the note.

6. Do not write notes when you are not yourself. This sounds simple, but it is really much more difficult than meets the eye. Learn the techniques to avoid this problem.

7. Avoid “online grenade” battles. Do not take the bait. Simply do not respond to edgy note in kind. Change the venue to be more effective.

8. Be careful with use of pronouns in notes. Pronouns establish the tone. The most dangerous pronoun in an online note is “you.”

9. Avoid using “absolutes.” Avoid words such as: never, always, impossible, or cannot. Soften the absolutes if you want to be more credible online.

10. Avoid sarcasm. Humor at the expense of another person will come back to haunt you.

11. Learn techniques to keep your e-mail inbox clean (down to zero notes each day) so you are highly responsive when needed. Adopting proper distribution rules in your organization will cut e-mail traffic by more than 30% instantly.

12. Understand the rules for writing challenging notes so you always get the result you want rather than create a need for damage control.

Your organization has a sustainable competitive advantage if:

• You live and work in an environment unhampered by the problems of poor online communication. This takes some education and a customized set of rules for your unique environment, but the effort is well worth it.

• Employees are not consumed with trying to sort out important information from piles of garbage notes.

• Your coworkers are not focused on one-upmanship and internal turf wars.

• Leaders know how to use electronic communications to build rather than destroy trust.

For leaders and managers, once you learn the essentials of e-body language, a whole new world of communication emerges. You will be more adept at decoding incoming messages and have a better sense of how your messages are interpreted by others. You will understand the secret code that is written “between the lines” of all messages and enhance the quality of online communications in your sphere of influence.

Training in this skill area does not require months of struggling with hidden gremlins. While employees often push back on productivity improvement or OD training, they welcome this topic enthusiastically because it improves their quality of work life instantly. Four hours of training and a set of rules can change a lifetime of bad habits.

9 Ways to Improve Online Communication

October 28, 2012

Are you becoming a digital junkie? Between e-mail, texting, or social networking, the nature of communication is becoming ever more digital and less verbal. With the brevity and acronyms used in Twitter messages, we may be heading back toward some form of cave drawings to communicate. At least if we are going to be communicating online all the time, we should all do it as skillfully at it as possible.

The rules for communicating efficiently and effectively online are not complex; unfortunately many people do not remember to use the rules on a daily basis. Here are nine specific points that can improve your communication online:

1. Understand online text is different from conversation – When we use the old fashioned method of communicating (with the mouth and ears) we have the opportunity to modify everything we say, the pace, the tone, the content, the inflection, everything, based on the visual feedback we are getting real time from the other person. Instantaneous feedback is not in play with digital communication, so the potential to make corrections and stay out of trouble is just not there.

2. Use the right mode of communication – For many applications, a digital note may be the expedient way to communicate, but it may well not be the best way. Consider whether having a face-to-face discussion or a phone call might be the more efficient route in the long run. Having your cell phone or ipad in your hand is not a reason to use the wrong mode of communication for important notes.

3. Get the right tone at the start – In any message, even a tweet, you need to set the tone at the very start so the other person understands your frame of reference. If not, the message can be read in a way that is totally opposite to your intention. With longer e-mail messages, this is a critical element.

4. Don’t play one upmanship – Escalating e-mails in an organizational context are familiar long strings of increasing rancor and expanding distribution. I call these diatribes “e-grenade battles.” The antidote here is to refrain from taking the bait. Simply do not reply in kind to a message that gets under your skin. Instead, pick up the phone or walk down the hall to clear up any misunderstanding.

5. Keep the content brief – Twitter helps us in that regard, but the side effect is that sometimes the true intent can be lost in the extreme brevity. With social networking and e-mail, less is more, because people do not take the time to wade through mountains of text to get the meat.

6. Avoid Absolutes – If I write that you are “always late for meetings,” it is not likely an accurate statement. “You never call me,” is usually proven to be incorrect. Even if an absolute word is technically correct, it is an accusatory term that sets up a negative vibe in the mind of the reader who will try to prove the writer is incorrect.

7. Read before sending – Depending on the gravity of the message, you should reread it at least twice before sending. With social networking this is also true. Make sure you attempt to put yourself in the place of the reader. Think how the information might be misinterpreted, and make sure you spell things correctly, at least most of the time.

8. Recognize you cannot get them back – Most digital messages are permanent data. They do not atrophy with time like verbal communication does. You can apologize all you want, but the other person can demonstrate that you said this or that. Make sure you write what you mean to communicate. Emails never go away.

9. Understand you lose control of the distribution – Once you push the send button, it is all over. You cannot get the message back or delete it. It is out there for the intended recipient and potentially any other person in the world to view. That includes your harshest critics or worst enemies!

There are numerous other ways to improve digital communication, but if you keep these nine concepts firmly in your mind, you will have a much more fruitful interface with other people online in the long run.

Getting Millennials To Drink the Kool-Aid

June 5, 2011

It is no secret that there are tensions between the four (soon to be five) different generations in the workplace. It is the topic of hundreds of articles and books. Several consultants make their living helping organizations understand and cope with generational differences. In this article, I want to focus on the Millennials and provide some tips on how Baby Boomers and Generation X groups can be more effective at engaging them. I am using the following age groupings in this article based on the writing date of 2011.

Generation Name    Birth Year    Age 2011 
Traditionalists           1925-1945       66-86
Baby Boomers           1946-1964      47-65
Generation X            1965-1980       31-46
Millennials (Y)          1981-1995       16-30
Generation Z            1996- on          LT -16

In an excellent article in HR Magazine entitled “Mixing it Up,” Adrienne Fox pointed to several research studies that indicate intergenerational stress which leads to habitual problems having different groups get along. For example, she cited a study of 3200 US employers by Leigh Branham that showed a correlation between low employee engagement and highly mixed general populations in organizations.

One huge caveat when discussing any diversity issue is that one must communicate in generalities or stereotypes. There are always specific individuals within any segment who do not conform to the typical pattern. When one says something like “Gen X individuals are typically frustrated and cynical and tend to be aloof in their management style,” that is a sweeping generalization that will not hold true for all individuals.

The area of greatest challenge seems to be how to get the Millennials to respond more positively to the Boomers in charge and especially to the Gen X coworkers or managers. Here are some ideas that may allow more fruitful relationships when the older generations attempt to lead Millennials.

Recognize their comfort with Technology

Rather than discourage Gen Y people from openly using the tools they were brought up with, embrace their knowledge and skill with the hardware and software that let them communicate with each other as effortlessly as the older generations brush their teeth. Tap into their knowledge, and have them teach others how to succeed with the tools of today. I personally know several excellent Gen Y professionals who are seeking to change jobs because they are forbidden to openly use social networking at work. To them the concept is anathema, and it will not be tolerated long term.

Get to know them on a personal level

Everyone has a story to tell about dreams and aspirations. While Gen X individuals might tend to hide true feelings in order to concentrate on the work at hand, Gen Y workers are more willing to open up when asked. Knowledge of a person’s ambitions allows a leader to tap in at a gut level, which greatly improves understanding. With understanding comes empathy and respect in both directions.

Praise quickly and with specific information

Positive reinforcement is welcomed by all generations, but it is more powerful for Millennials than Gen Xers. Reason: The Millennials generally have less experience and are more easily shaped by positive reinforcement if it is sincere, specific, and done well. Gen X workers have heard it all before and would be more likely to think the feedback was disingenuous or manipulative.

Make expectations clear

Millennials like to be told they are on the right path as opposed to Gen X workers, who are more independent and focused on tasks. Since the younger workers tend to think holistically about how work integrates with their life, it helps to think in these terms when giving the rationale for specific procedures or sequencing of tasks. For example, a millennial would respond better to an explanation of the “comp time” policies than a Gen X worker would. Knowing the reason why the policy was set up would help the Millennial put it in the perspective of his or her life view and accept the rule, while a typical Gen X person would comply begrudgingly and try to “play the system” if possible.

Be as flexible as possible

In establishing policies for time off from work, show as much flexibility as possible to keep the younger generation engaged. For example, they find stiff and antiquated rules about how quickly after starting a job they can take vacation to be annoying and insensitive. Sometimes this leads Millennials to be tagged with the name “the lazy generation.” It is not so much that they are anti-work; they just want to be offered the option to fit work more seamlessly into their life and be able to take advantage of interesting opportunities when they arise.

Be patient with reluctance to use e-mail

Millennials would rather text or use social media than communicate to other people via e-mail. I know many young people who say they rarely use e-mail at all. This has a backlash effect at work because Millennials are often less responsive to e-mail requests than Gen Xers. The business world is still e-mail based, since the asynchronous nature of e-mail lends itself well to the meeting-centered professional schedule.

Millennials sit in meetings and keep up to date with events in real time, where the Gen X and Boomers tend to be less distracted in meetings but get their data through an endless stream of e-mail messages outside the meeting environment. When you do observe people in a meeting environment using PDA devices while multitasking, chances are the Boomers and Gen X individuals are reading and answering e-mails while the Millennials will be mostly texting or tweeting. The best advice here is to compromise and allow Millennials to text, but also set the expectation that they will respond to important e-mails promptly.

I read one rather telling statistic the other day. The use of e-mail by seniors increased by 28% between 2009 and 2010. During that same period, e-mail usage decreased by 59% among teens. As these teens move on through school and into the working world, this will cause the difference in communication patterns to become more of a schism. Perhaps some hybrid technology is out there that can bridge the gap to make the younger generations more receptive to e-mail. This would be good, as the more durable historical trail in e-mail is often useful in a business environment. Likely it will be the other way around. The senior workers are going to be encouraged to use more texting and social networking for daily communications, and e-mail will become less dominant.

Generational differences do lead to stress in the workplace, and the habits and life view of Millennials creates a dynamic that is frustrating for older generations. To help vent the pressure, follow the ideas above and continually seek pragmatic ways to integrate younger workers into the fabric of daily organizational life.