Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 20;   May 15, 2024: Should I Write or Should I Call?

Should I Write or Should I Call?


After we recognize the need to contact a colleague or colleagues to work out a way to move forward, we next must decide how to make contact. Phone? Videoconference? Text message? There are some simple criteria that can help with such decisions.
Typing a text message on a smartphone

Typing a text message on a smartphone. With a few exceptions for larger phones, there isn't much screen space available for anything more complicated than a text message. If your conversation requires support in the form of diagrams or images, detail is limited. Image by niekverlaan, courtesy Pixabay.

Before the arrival of the Internet, and before text messaging, the choice of how to contact a colleague could be based on urgency. The more urgent the need for an exchange, the more likely we would be to choose telephone over snail mail. It was a clear choice. But today, with wide availability of email and the various forms of text messaging, the advantages of one medium compared to the others are unclear.

For example, a text message can get a quicker response than telephone if your correspondent is in a meeting or in some environment that isn't voice friendly, such as an airplane or a dentist's office waiting room. But telephone can be quicker if your correspondent is engaged in some activity that isn't keyboard-friendly, such as driving a car or working out on a climbing wall.

Some commonly used criteria for choosing a communication medium

What criteria are available to guide the choice between a text-based medium, a voice medium like telephone, or some form of video connection? Some criteria are obvious:

  • The amount of ambient noise present in the respective environments of the participants
  • How safely all participants can attend to composing or reading text
  • The importance of reference material needed for full participation in the exchange
  • The comparison between the time each participant has available for the exchange, and the time required to carry on that exchange

Interactive exchanges

One more criterion that provides guidance for many situations is the need to interact. Interactive exchanges have two distinguishing characteristics:

In an Today, with wide availability of email and
the various forms of text messaging, the
advantages of one medium compared
to the others are unclear
interactive exchange, the participants take turns making contributions. That is not to say that each participant gets equal time, or that interruptions never occur. Rather, generally, the choice of who speaks next is orderly — controlled either formally by a facilitator, or informally by custom or courtesy. Generally, there is one and only one speaker at a time. [Jepson 2005]
If, by contrast, speaker choice is chaotic, with multiple people speaking at once, the exchange is less interactive, because chaos interferes with the second characteristic of interactive exchanges, namely, threading.
A threaded conversation is one in which the current topic is clearly defined. Contributors generally stay on-topic. The conversation might have multiple threads, but the transition from one thread to another is clear to all, and usually controlled.
Threading results in a conversational structure in which most contributions are shaped, in part, by the content of the collection of all previous contributions to that thread.
The first attribute of the interactive exchange — turn-taking — is what distinguishes it from lectures, webinars, and to some extent, all-hands meetings. The second attribute — threading — enables the participants to efficiently and effectively develop ideas and solve problems collaboratively.

Indicators of the need for interaction

Interactive exchanges can be expensive. Because they require real-time connection between participants, the infrastructure involved can be pricey. Specifically, the more interactive media include videoconference, teleconference, and telephone. The less interactive media include text-based messaging such as text message, instant message, email, and snail mail. In between are wikis and other collaboration media.

But a factor that contributes even more to costs is the time of the people involved. During the conversation, they must be fully attentive to the conversation. They cannot (and should not) do anything else. This requirement creates opportunity costs and scheduling problems.

For these reasons, we use interactive exchanges sparingly. To do that we need to know the indicators that an interactive exchange is needed and justified. There are many such indicators, but three stand out in my experience.

Controversial subject matter
Controversies require resolution, and resolution requires debate, which is an inherently interactive activity. A medium that supports interaction well is a necessary prerequisite for resolving controversies. Choosing a medium that doesn't support interaction well is equivalent to stifling debate. It risks a poor outcome.
Uneven distribution of relevant knowledge
When relevant knowledge is distributed unevenly, those who lack the knowledge are likely to be asking questions of those who possess it. These exchanges are inherently interactive. There are actually two objectives. The group must both distribute knowledge and drive out misconceptions and prejudice.
Elevated probability of resource contention
If the group is engaged in developing a deliverable or executing an action plan, one additional condition — resource contention — can create a need for interactive communication. Any resource that's in short supply, or any individual with skills in high demand, can become a bottleneck and an obstacle to the group's success. Interactive conversation might be a necessary step to resolving the contention.

Last words

If a successful result is expected to require interaction between the participants, they would do well to choose a medium for the exchange that supports question-and-answer, backtracking, interruptions, and all the other kinds of exchanges that we find in lively conversations. The more closely the medium can mimic face-to-face conversation, the more likely it is to support interaction. Go to top Top  Next issue: Rescheduling Collaborative Work  Next Issue

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real ResultsAre your virtual meetings plagued by inattentiveness, interruptions, absenteeism, and a seemingly endless need to repeat what somebody just said? Do you have trouble finding a time when everyone can meet? Do people seem disengaged and apathetic? Or do you have violent clashes and a plague of virtual bullying? Read Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results to learn how to make virtual meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot shorter. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Jepson 2005]
Kevin Jepson. "Conversations — and Negotiated Interaction — in Text and Voice Chat Rooms," Language Learning & Technology 9:3, (2005) pp.79-98. Available here. Retrieved 29 April 2024. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Ancient stairs at ruins in CambodiaThe True Costs of Indirectness
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
The musical energy behind "Shall We Dance" (1937)What We Don't Know About Each Other
We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
A 155 mm artillery shell is visible as it exits the barrel of an M-198 howitzer during trainingWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: II
Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned, rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
Senator Jeff Sessions grills Budget Director Sylvia Burwell on President Obama's 2015 Budget March 5, 2014That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects, "That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work, and how can the respondent escape the trap?
A pair of pearsMastering Messaging for Pandemics: II
When pandemics rage, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email therefore becomes more important. Some sources of confusion that might not be noticeable in speech can cause real trouble in messaging.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.