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Assessing your communication options
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By Clive Shepherd

With the dazzling proliferation of electronic and networked communication solutions, a typical employee would be forgiven if they were confused as to what to use and when. Do I distribute a printed catalogue or do I put it on the new corporate intranet? Do I speak to this person face-to-face, send them an e-mail or perhaps a memo? Should I call someone up on the phone, fax them or drop them a line? Should I communicate my message on video, through a printed newsletter or on the intranet? Should we get everyone together for a meeting or use the video conferencing facility? How about this training that needs to be done – should we arrange a classroom session, create a CD-ROM or run it over the intranet? See what I mean?

Businesses are constantly adding new communication options, but they very rarely take any away. It’s also rare for them to provide any guidance to their employees to help them sort through the options.

This paper aims to explain the characteristics, features and benefits of the most popular communication methods and make recommendations on when and how each should be used. It does this in a series of steps:

  1. An introduction to the sixteen most popular communication methods
  2. An explanation of the various media elements (sound, images, etc.) that can be employed by each communication method and what these can add to the communication process
  3. A cross-reference table of communication methods and media elements
  4. An explanation of the various dimensions by which communication can be analysed – recorded v live, passive v interactive, local v remote, push v pull.
  5. A cross-reference table of communication methods and dimensions of communication
  6. A comparison of the communication methods, summarising the characteristics of each and recommending when each should be employed

With any luck this analysis will help you to narrow down your repertoire of communication options and make it clearer where each of these fits in to your working life.


Contents

The main communication methods
The principal media elements
Media capabilities of communication methods
Dimensions of communication
Communication methods by dimension
Communication methods compared
Where does that leave us?


The main communication methods

As a starting point, here is a brief description of what are probably the most popular methods for business communication used today. Some of these are universally familiar, others recent arrivals on the scene, but for completeness and to ensure a common understanding, I have attempted to describe them all.

Audio tape/CD Although audio playback devices are not usually available at work, they are almost universal in homes and cars and can be taken practically anywhere in the form of personal stereos. Audio is used only infrequently as a means for business communication, primarily as a way of delivering information and training to employees such as salespeople, who are constantly on the move. Audio production is relatively inexpensive.
Videotape As soon as videocassette recorders became established within the home, their use within business flourished, primarily for formal corporate communications, but also for training. Although video will increasingly be transmitted by satellite to those organisations with large branch structures, or directly to desktop PCs over a company’s network, the videocassette will remain the most practical option for some time. Depending on the production values employed, video can be expensive to produce, though relatively inexpensive to replicate and deliver.
CD-ROM A CD-ROM is a compact disc used for storing computer data, although this data can be in practically any form, including audio and video. Although CD-ROMs are universal now on home PCs, as much as anything as a way of installing software, most business PCs do not require them. The primary use for CD-ROMs in business is the delivery of multimedia training or sales presentations, normally on specially-provided workstations. Depending on the nature of the media making up a CD-ROM and the degree of interactivity required, CD-ROMs can be expensive to produce, yet inexpensive to replicate and deliver.
Letters / memos / reports In spite of the increase in electronic communication, we all seem to receive our fair share of messages on paper. This may be because there is no e-mail link between the parties, because a hard copy is required to meet audit or legal requirements or because the recipient prefers to read from paper than from a screen.
Manuals Another common form of paper document, with the distinction that the main purpose is reference rather than gaining a response.
Printed materials A great deal of our post consists of printed documents in the form of brochures, fliers, magazines and newsletters, many of which originate from outside, although this format is also common for corporate communications. Depending on the production values and the number of colours, printed materials can be expensive to produce and replicate, except at high volumes.
Fax Fax uses the public telephone system as a way of delivering paper documents from one place to another, in those situations where a hard copy original is not essential.
E-mail E-mail has become the primary means for delivering short text messages within organisations that are networked. As e-mail between organisations becomes more common, the medium will increasingly take the place of fax, particularly as whole documents can be sent as e-mail attachments. E-mail provides many cost advantages when compared with the use of paper or the telephone.
Intranet An intranet uses the same technology as the Internet, but operates within the confines of a single organisation. Normally an intranet is used to deliver text and images, although the technology is capable of audio, animation, video and real-time 3D graphics (sometimes called 'virtual reality'). The principal constraint on the media that an intranet can employ is the bandwidth (capacity) of the organisation’s network, although it is also the case that few desktop PCs are currently capable of playing audio. Information is much less expensive to distribute and maintain with an intranet than with paper equivalents.
Radio With limited frequencies available, radio is used almost exclusively for public broadcast channels and has few uses for business communications. Furthermore, radio receivers are not commonly available in the workplace.
TV Like radio, broadcast TV is typically used for public rather than business purposes and few TV receivers are available at work. However, some organisations with large branch networks use satellite to transmit TV programmes to the workforce.
One-to-ones By this, we just mean two people meeting face to face, here and now.
Meetings And by this, we mean three or more people, meeting in person.
Phone Phones are universal and, with the advent of voice mail and mobile phones, it is now possible to reach people practically anytime, anywhere. Conferencing facilities also make it possible for meetings of three or more people to take place remotely.
Video conferencing Video conferencing uses phone lines to transmit video as well as sound, between two or more parties. Because cameras, microphones, audio playback, special software and high-bandwidth network cabling are required, video conferencing is used only infrequently and on specially-provided workstations. However, as networks become more powerful and the hardware components less expensive, it is conceivable that the facility will eventually be available on every PC.

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The principal media elements

Each of these communication methods has different capabilities in terms of what it can deliver – words, pictures, sound, motion and so on. We take these ‘media elements’ for granted, but their presence or absence make a considerable difference to what each method can achieve. Here’s a brief summary of the principal media elements:

Written word Words convey very specific meaning. Written words can be read at a pace that suits the reader, who can backtrack and re-read any passages if necessary.
Spoken word Again, words convey very specific meaning. And, with spoken words, the way in which they are spoken also conveys meaning.
Still images Images can convey meaning more directly than words and are more easily memorable. Still images can be viewed at a pace to suit the viewer, who can backtrack and review an image if necessary.
Moving images Again, images are more direct and memorable than words. Moving images can obviously show motion more effectively than still images, including body language. Importantly, moving images attract attention.
Non-verbal sound Music is capable of creating a powerful emotional response and ambient sound and sound effects are a necessary ingredient of realism.

Contents

Media capabilities of communication methods

Written word

Spoken word

Still images

Moving images

Non-verbal sound

Audio tape/CD

no

yes

no

no

yes

Videotape

no

yes

no

yes

yes

CD-ROM

yes

yes

yes

yes

yes

Letters / memos / reports

yes

no

yes

no

no

Manuals

yes

no

yes

no

no

Printed materials

yes

no

yes

no

no

Fax

yes

no

yes

no

no

E-mail

yes

no

no

no

no

Intranet

yes

no

yes

no

no

Radio

no

yes

no

no

yes

TV

no

yes

no

yes

yes

One-to-ones

no

yes

no

yes

no

Meetings

no

yes

no

yes

no

Phone

no

yes

no

no

no

Video conferencing

no

yes

no

yes

no

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Dimensions of communication

The strengths and weaknesses of each communication method are not just a factor of the media elements they can employ, but also the broad categories that they fall into. I have identified four independent dimensions that help considerably in categorising the methods:

  • recorded v live
  • passive v interactive
  • local v remote
  • push v pull

 

Recorded

Recorded communication is prepared in advance of its delivery. Examples are audio tapes and CDs; videotapes; CD-ROMs; letters, memos and reports; manuals; printed materials; faxes; e-mails; intranet pages and some radio and TV broadcasts.

The advantages of recorded communication are that it delivers a consistent message each time; the message can be a considered one and the recipient can access the communication at a time that suits them.

Live

Live communication is delivered as it happens, in real-time. Examples are live radio and TV broadcasts; one-to-ones; meetings; phone calls and video conferencing calls.

The advantage of live communication is that it is immediate.

Passive

Passive communication is one-way. The receiver is not able to respond directly to the communication. Examples are audio tapes and CDs; videotapes; manuals; printed materials; faxes; radio and TV broadcasts.

The advantages of passive communication are that it requires less effort from the recipient and that, because there are no opportunities for interaction, it is quicker.

Interactive

Interactive communication is two-way. Each party in the process is able to send and receive communication. Examples are CD-ROMs (assuming they do not contain purely linear material); letters, memos and e-mails (to the extent that they are exchanged); the intranet (to the extent that interactive facilities are provided); one-to-ones; meetings; phone calls and videoconferencing calls.

The advantages of interactive communication are the opportunities it provides for feedback; the greater degree of confidence it provides that the message has been understood; the recipient can to some extent control the pace of the communication and the message can be tailored to better meet the recipient’s needs.

Local

Local communication is stand-alone and off-line. It occurs where you are, even though it might have been originated at a distance. Examples are audio tape and CDs; videotapes; CD-ROMs; letters, memos and reports; manuals; printed materials; one-to-ones and meetings. Faxes are local even though the process by which they are transmitted is not.

The advantages of local communication are that no sacrifice has to be made to quality because of bandwidth limitations and that there are fewer restrictions on where the media can be used or the communication can take place.

Remote

Remote communication is delivered at a distance. It is networked, on-line, transmitted. Examples are e-mails; the intranet; radio and TV broadcasts; phone calls and videoconferencing calls. The process by which faxes are transmitted is also remote.

The advantages of remote communication are that there is no delay in getting the message to the recipient, wherever they are and that communication can take place over large distances. An advantage of remote, recorded media, such as intranet pages, is that they can be easily updated centrally.

Push

Push communications are sent to specific recipients. Examples are letters, memos and reports; faxes and e-mails; one-to-ones; meetings; phone calls and videoconferencing calls.

The advantage of push communication is the greater certainty that it provides that a message will reach its target within an appropriate timeframe.

Pull

Pull communications are made available to be accessed at the recipient’s discretion. Examples are audio tapes and CDs; videotapes; CD-ROMs; manuals; printed materials; the intranet; radio and TV broadcasts.

The advantages of pull communication are that it is less stressful for the recipient and that very large quantities of information can be made available at any one time.

Contents

Communication methods by dimension

Audio tape/CD

Recorded

Passive

Local

Pull

Videotape

Recorded

Passive

Local

Pull

CD-ROM

Recorded

Interactive

Local

Pull

Letters / memos / reports

Recorded

Interactive

Local

Push

Manuals

Recorded

Passive

Local

Pull

Printed materials

Recorded

Passive

Local

Pull

Fax

Recorded

Passive

Local

Push

E-mail

Recorded

Interactive

Remote

Push

Intranet

Recorded

Interactive

Remote

Pull

Radio

Hybrid

Passive

Remote

Pull

TV

Hybrid

Passive

Remote

Pull

One-to-ones

Live

Interactive

Local

Push

Meetings

Live

Interactive

Local

Push

Phone

Live

Interactive

Remote

Push

Video conferencing

Live

Interactive

Remote

Push

Contents

Communication methods compared

It is now possible to look at the applicability of each method by identifying where it sits against each of the four dimensions and the media elements it is capable of employing.

Characteristics by dimension Media characteristics When to use
Audio tape/CD Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Passive, so requires less effort from recipient, quicker

Local, so potential for high quality, portable

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through non-verbal sounds can create emotional response, realism

When the message can be conveyed using sound alone; when interaction is not required; when recipients have access to players; when no other medium is suitable, e.g. when travelling

Typical applications: education and training on the move

Videotape Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Passive, so requires less effort from recipient, quicker

Local, so potential for high quality, portable

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through moving images can be direct and memorable, attract attention, show motion, including body language

Through non-verbal sounds can create emotional response, realism

When the message requires high quality moving images; when you need to create a memorable impression; when interaction is not required; when the size of the audience makes it cost-effective; when recipients have access to players

Typical applications: corporate communications

CD-ROM Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Local, so potential for high quality, portable

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the written word can be specific, self-paced

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through still images can be direct and memorable, self-paced

Through moving images can be direct and memorable, attract attention, show motion, including body language

Through non-verbal sounds can create emotional response, realism

When the message requires a wide range of media types; when interaction is required; when the message needs to be tailored to the recipient; when the size of the audience makes it cost-effective; when recipients have access to players

Typical applications: training and point-of-sale programmes

Letters / memos / reports Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Local, so potential for high quality, portable

Push, so message will reach target on time

Through the written word can be specific, self-paced

Through still images can be direct and memorable, self-paced

When the message can be conveyed using text and still images; when it is important that you know the recipient will see the message; when the message needs to be tailored to the recipient; when e-mail is not available, when portability is needed or when hard copy is essential

Typical applications: everyday business communications where no on-line alternative

Manuals Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Passive, so requires less effort from recipient, quicker

Local, so potential for high quality, portable

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the written word can be specific, self-paced

Through still images can be direct and memorable, self-paced

When the message can be conveyed using text and still images; when an intranet is not available, portability is needed or hard copy is essential

Typical applications: reference, where no on-line alternative

Printed materials Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Passive, so requires less effort from recipient, quicker

Local, so potential for high quality, portable

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the written word can be specific, self-paced

Through still images can be direct and memorable, self-paced

When the message can be conveyed using text and still images; when quality is important; when the size of the audience makes it cost-effective; when an intranet is not available, portability is needed or hard copy is essential

Typical applications: corporate communications, marketing materials

Fax Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Passive, so requires less effort from recipient, quicker

Push, so message will reach target on time

Through the written word can be specific, self-paced

Through still images can be direct and memorable, self-paced

When the message can be conveyed using text and still images; when it is important that you know the recipient will see the message; when the recipient is at a distance; when e-mail is not available; when the recipient has a fax machine;

Typical applications: business messages if no on-line alternative

E-mail Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Remote, so no delays, regardless of distance

Push, so message will reach target on time

Through the written word can be specific, self-paced When the message can be conveyed using text alone; when it is important that you know the recipient will see the message; when the recipient is at a distance; when the message needs to be tailored to the recipient; when both parties have e-mail access

Typical applications: everyday business communications

Intranet Recorded, so consistent, considered, accessible when suits user

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Remote, so no delays, regardless of distance

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the written word can be specific, self-paced

Through still images can be direct and memorable, self-paced

When the message can be conveyed using text and still images; when the recipient is at a distance; when the message needs to be updated regularly; when interactivity is required; when the recipient has access to the intranet

Typical applications: corporate communications, reference, discussion forums, training

Radio Passive, so requires less effort from recipient, quicker

Remote, so no delays, regardless of distance

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through non-verbal sounds can create emotional response, realism

When the message can be conveyed using sound alone; when the recipient is at a distance; (if live) when communication needs to be immediate; when the recipient has a radio receiver

Typical applications: none

TV Passive, so requires less effort from recipient, quicker

Remote, so no delays, regardless of distance

Pull, so less stressful, good for large quantities of info

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through moving images can be direct and memorable, attract attention, show motion, including body language

Through non-verbal sounds can create emotional response, realism

When the message requires high quality moving images; when the recipient is at a distance; (if live) when communication needs to be immediate; when the recipient has a TV receiver

Typical applications: corporate communications using satellite

One-to-ones Live, so immediate

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Local, so can take place anywhere

Push, so message will reach target on time

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through moving images (in this case normal sight) can be direct and memorable, attract attention, show motion, including body language

When the message requires the parties to see each other; when interaction is required; when communication needs to be immediate; when the message needs to be tailored to the recipient

Typical applications: interviews, everyday business communications

Meetings Live, so immediate

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Local, so can take place anywhere

Push, so message will reach target on time

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through moving images (in this case normal sight) can be direct and memorable, attract attention, show motion, including body language

When the message requires the parties to see each other; when interaction is required; when communication needs to be immediate; when the message needs to be tailored to the recipient

Typical applications: presentations, seminars, reviews, briefing sessions, group decision-making

Phone Live, so immediate

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Remote, so no delays, regardless of distance

Push, so message will reach target on time

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice When the message can be conveyed using sound alone; when interaction is required; when communication needs to be immediate; when the recipient is at a distance; when the message needs to be tailored to the recipient; when both parties have access to a phone

Typical applications: everyday business communications

Video conferencing Live, so immediate

Interactive, so opportunities for feedback, can check message has been understood, recipient can control pace, message can be tailored

Remote, so no delays, regardless of distance

Push, so message will reach target on time

Through the spoken word can be specific, convey tone of voice

Through moving images can be direct and memorable, attract attention, show motion, including body language

When the message requires the parties to see each other; when interaction is required; when communication needs to be immediate; when the recipient is at a distance; when the message needs to be tailored to the recipient; when both parties have access to video conferencing facilities

Typical applications: important meetings held at a distance

Contents

Where does that leave us?

There is no doubt that we could achieve better results and save a considerable amount of time and money if we always used the right method to meet our particular communication objectives. Whether the analysis presented here helps us make the right decisions is for you to decide. Depending on your own experience and view of the world, you may consider it over-simplified or an incidence of ‘analysis paralysis’. If you can improve upon it, I would welcome your suggestions.

Whatever the case, there is a danger of making methods our starting point – ‘we have a satellite TV network, what can we do with it?’ Clearly that is a case of a solution looking for a problem. As always, we should start with the goal, the purpose of the communication, and ask ourselves what method or combination of methods is most likely to achieve this goal? Let’s take some examples:

To help in analysing these situations and choosing the most appropriate options, I have developed a decision-making tool in the form of both an Excel spreadsheet and a series of web pages that can be installed on an intranet. I will be happy to make these available to any readers who are interested in trying them out. Happy communicating!

Contents

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Fastrak Consulting Ltd, 1998

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