Pick the Correct Medium for Your Message

Now we have more communication options than ever before. Choosing the right one is essential to getting your message across.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #450

Having sent my first email at the age of 11, today’s topic has been an issue for me for a long time: it’s the super-important ideas that different ways to communicate have very different implications.

My young friend has phone anxiety. She says it’s common, and it really shouldn’t matter since she can always text. Millennial listeners might agree, and, well, they might be wrong. Let’s explore some history together, and then consider what it means for you.

Phones Used to Be the Only Option

Before the early 2000s, everything was done by phone. Yes, everything. There was no other option. You could call now, or write a letter that took there days to arrive. That was it.

At work, you called. Maybe you got an answering machine, but you ultimately ended up in a live conversation. At home, you called. And called. And called. Teenagers were glued to their phones, calling and talking and talking and calling. (Some used real glue. That didn’t end well.)

If you didn’t use a phone, you didn’t have a social life; you couldn’t invite people out. You had to call, and you even had to think through your plans in advance since phones weren’t portable and you couldn’t make last-minute changes.

In that world, no, phone anxiety was not common. If you had it, you saw a therapist and got over it. Otherwise, you couldn’t work, and you couldn’t play.

Why Medium Matters

With a phone, you can hear voice tone. It tells you a lot. Communication is near-instant, so pauses and silence come across. Voice tone and pauses relay emotion, which guides interpretation.

On the phone, you know the difference between, “That was a really good job you did!” and “That was a really good job you did!” The first is sincere, the second is sarcasm. They are opposites. With only words, people interpret according to the mood they’re in while reading. And that isn’t good. As discussed in the episode on talking to people, for survival, our brains choose the worst possible interpretation. Say it in text, and prepare to start World War III.

Media Richness Controls the Emotional Message

Talking in person gives the best chance of being understood. You convey facial expression, body language, and voice tone. As a listener, you get the richest information. As a speaker, you can use voice tone, facial expression, and body language to communicate precisely.

Real-time voice is next best. Even without visual cues, voice tone and inflection still convey emotion.

Email, texting, status updates, and comments are best for information that can’t be misunderstood or evoke an emotional response: “Here’s the address of the tar pits. Meet you there at midnight.”

If you’re a good writer, at least with email, you can write carefully to make your intent clear. Text messages, on the other hand, limit what you can say so much that they can be a virtual minefield. Do not break up or fire someone via text. Just. Don’t.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.