Communicating Effectively in a Digital Age

In our digital age, most people have long forgotten or never been taught the art and science of written communication. We’ve progressed (or regressed depending on your point of view) from a time when it was commonplace to jot down a note or letter and drop it in the mail, not expecting someone to reply with fifteen minutes. We’ve come to a time where people legitimately don’t know the difference between “there” and “their,” and they’re using “4” instead of “for.”

But as scholars and humans we need to understand how to operate and interact in in our current digital age efficiently and effectively and without abbreviating the word “you” with “u” (seriously, how much time are you actually saving?) In any email, conversation, text, or messenger chat you have at work or in your personal life there are some key pieces of information and expectations that you need to set (and please learn proper grammar, but that’s a topic for a different article).

Many might write this approach off as specific to a workplace or business context, however these principles can aid you in all aspects of life and help you avoid some very sticky situations. And remember, these aren’t the principles for casual conversation, love letters, or catching up with an old friend. These are guidelines for actionable conversation, or when you want something to get done.

1. Set Expectations
This is the oft overlooked piece of clear communication that builds the foundation on which the rest of your message rests. First and foremost in any piece of written communication, you need to immediately let your recipient know what they are getting into, and what you want to get out of it.

Answer the “What’s happening?” Question. The first piece of this is your subject line or the first sentence in whatever you may be sending. “Hey” and “Question” aren’t helpful. Get to your point quickly – “Questions re: the one project from the other day” puts your message in the right context immediately and starts the receiver’s head churning away to pull up all the relevant info they have.

Also – set the foundation for our third principle (Next Steps) by quickly pointing out what you want to get out of the interaction. “I’m asking this question because I have a meeting with the client tomorrow… etc.” But we’ll get to that in a moment.

2. Supplying Context
Context is, simply put, all the information that person will need to respond to your questions, requests, or what have you. Give them everything they need. Be sure to:

  • Detail why you are reaching out to them
  • Include any relevant dates
  • Attach any materials they’ll need. Don’t make them dig for something you sent a month back, you know what it is, send it along.
  • Provide the rationale for what you’re asking. Telling someone why something needs to be done gives them a real life connection and let’s them know the rush isn’t simply because you feel like rushing.

Put simply context is the art of supplying a person with everything they need as part of your query, you want to make them as efficient as possible because, more often than not, it will mean you get back what you need more efficiently.

Most importantly try to think of all the questions that your recipient might have upon receiving your message. Answer them! No one likes 15 back and forth emails with one question in each. At very least you can cut the back and forth down significantly.

3. Next Steps
What happens next? At this point, we understand the context of our conversation, we know what’s expected or we have specific expectations of what going on. However, it is ALWAYS a great idea to spell out exactly what the other person should expect next. Now you don’t have to dictate this, it can certainly be a negotiation, but this piece of the interaction is crucial to wrapping up the topic or reason you contacted them and drawing the conversation to an end.  Giving the person the right takeaways is crucial to accomplish before you bring your interaction to an end.

There are a few ways to do this:

Simply, tell them what happens next. This is specifically good if in an email, letter, or text message. Something where there isn’t a guaranteed immediate response. A few examples of this would be something to the effect of:
“Thanks for taking the time to ready my resume and cover letter, I’ll be following up with you early next week.”

“If I don’t hear back from you I’ll assume the new website copy is approved and post it Wednesday of next week.” This is an interesting technique, and one to be used sparingly. If they miss it, and you move ahead you can create issues. But on a pressing deadline grabbing the bull by the horns and dictating the course of action can be a big problem solver.

Ask what happens next. While this seems like a no brainer, putting the ball in the other interlocutor’s court (that’s the $15 word of the day) is a perfectly acceptable way to keep things moving – examples of this:

“Now that I’ve provided all the research and background materials you requested, what are the next steps? Let me know what else you need from me!”

“Based on past projects, I assume that next we’ll be moving on to X, Y, then Z. Can you confirm?”

…and above all, be concise! No one likes a four page War and Peace email, letter, text message, or IM. Hit these main points, and move on:

  • Set the expectation
  • Supply the context
  • Cover the next steps

Crafting written communication in this way is helpful in that, when done correctly, can get you what you need quickly. If you supply all the info, knowledge, and expectations up front you can save yourself 30 back and forth emails (or at least cut that number down significantly), and make you a better communicator.

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