In a recent class in British Columbia, a director spoke about the company's focus on better communication. He said, "Face to face is always best, then phone, then email. Whenever you can, choose face to face."
I disagree, at least partly.
Yes, I understand the value of face-to-face communication. It's essential when we need to communicate bad news, sensitive information, or anything that would benefit from eye contact, a reassuring nod, and other body language. It is a perfect way to build or reestablish relationships. It's ideal when we need to hash out an agreement, get buy-in, or respond to burning questions. It's usually the right way to seal a high-stakes deal.
And I know the beauty of phone conversations. I love the phone to come to a quick, clear understanding. It's perfect for sweeping away small webs of confusion. And it's a great tool to make a personal introduction or ask a favor. I also like it to schedule lunch and pick a restaurant.
But email is not a third choice for me. It's the right choice in lots of situations: to share complex information that does not require discussion, to confirm the details of a face-to-face or phone conversation, to pass on information without interrupting someone, to communicate after hours and across the globe, and to make simple requests and straightforward announcements, especially to many people.
In a class I am teaching in managerial communication, students described how their companies communicated important information, especially bad news. Face-to-face communication was the clear best practice for bad news, but email–handled well–was repeatedly named as the best way to follow up the face-to-face news with confirmation and details. One of the worst ways to communicate was in a conference call after hours–on the employees' time.
Do you want better communication? Then stop by my office if you need to end my project or want to get to know me, call me if you want my opinion or a date for lunch, and email me if it's midnight where I live or you are sending routine data.
Face to face, phone, and email–which is the best form of communication? All of them.