Types of Communication

After considering the intent, the audience, and what you need to say, your next focus should be on the actual form you'll use to deliver a message. Leaders generally communicate by the following four means:

  • In person

  • In writing

  • Graphically

  • Via broadcast

Each medium has its own requirements, strengths, and weaknesses. Each also needs a particular approach if you want to make it work for you.

In-Person Communication

Delivering a message in person is the most powerful form of communication, and it's also the most natural. From the day we are born, we all communicate. Babies cry when they want a nap or food or a clean diaper. A smile or grimace say enormous amounts.

Over the years, we pick up language and a range of nonverbal skills to add specificity and nuance to what we say. Messages get more complex as we convey ideas, desires, and interests, combining the intellectual and the emotional in ways no other form of communication can achieve.

Nonverbal communication is not only a powerful tool but a potential danger. If you are ambivalent about something, your body language can send messages contradictory to the words you use, muddying what you are saying.

A leader might find it necessary to use in-person communication in ways ranging from highly personal and informal one-to-one conversations to scripted speeches delivered to any number of people. The constraints are similar. Normal speaking runs around 125 words a minute, which means you have a hard limit on how much information you can fit in.

You also have to be careful about the complexity of what you say. When people listen to information, they can't easily go back and pick up the thread of the message if it gets tangled. That's a greater problem in large groups and formal situations, where listeners don't have the interactivity of a conversation that might allow the other person to ask questions and grasp what you are saying. In a speech, simplicity of language and structure become paramount.

Written Communication

When you put words to paper or the electronic equivalent, you can spend time reviewing the message and honing its execution. People use different vocabularies when writing and speaking, and you probably phrase thoughts differently in both.

Do some reading about how to write well. George Orwell wrote a marvelous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” that also offers excellent instruction in how to effectively use language. Another recommendation is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White.

The desire to impress the reader is a potential danger in writing. When writing, it's easy to fall victim to elaborate vocabulary and overly complex structure that can lose the reader. You also should consider how the words appear on the page. Avoid block after block of dense text, which is physically difficult to read. For memos, consider using something more than single spacing. Add headings to help direct the reader through the document, and incorporate visual aids where appropriate.

Problems of Electronic Communication

All forms of communication have their own idiosyncrasies, but there are some particularly thorny ones in electronic forms. Electronic communication often effectively combines the worst aspects of writing and speech.

The written word misses the emotional cues that we use when talking. Traditionally this hasn't been a problem because the process of writing has been a reflective one. Someone gives thought, writes a draft, checks it, and possibly rewrites it before someone reads the results. People don't tend to blurt something out in writing as they might in speech because they have too much time to reconsider.

But electronic communication — e-mails, instant messaging, and online discussion forums — are more casual and instantaneous in nature. People tend to use the informality of speech, dash off something without reviewing it, and then hit the send button.

Always give your e-mails a second read before sending them. How would that message seem to you? Are there potential areas of misunderstanding? Take a little extra time now to avoid having to spend a lot of energy later cleaning up an unnecessary mess.

Graphical Communication

A picture can be worth a thousand words, and graphics can show the relationships among sets of information in a more effective way than pages of explanation. Use images to help communicate your points, both in writing and speaking. Don't add graphics just for the sake of having them any more than you'd add to a memo an extra hundred words that said nothing.

Be wary, too, because graphics can also create false impressions. For example, changing the scale of the X and Y axes of a sales graph can change the way a curve looks, creating a different emotional impression of how well an effort has gone. Be scrupulous. You don't want to do something that others might perceive as dishonest, undermining your position as a leader. If a graph seems to you to convey a different impression than the numbers do, others will have the same reaction as well.

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