What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Choosing the Right Medium for the Message

As an early-adopter techno-geek, I was thrilled to receive an Amazon Kindle for my birthday. For those of you who haven't yet fondled a Kindle, it's a portable book-reading device, about the size of a trade paperback, that lets you download and store about 20 books at a time. You can also annotate and search all of your books and comments, which provides access to the text in ways that printed books can't offer.

I was thrilled to be able to bring lots of books along with me on my travels, and luxuriated in reading by the light of the airplane. However, I soon discovered that I had trouble staying engaged with longer novels in this limited, bland format. I missed the look of different fonts for different stories; resting my eyes between the text and the margins, and beyond; the sound of the pages as I turned them; the shift in weight as I passed the halfway point of the story. In other words, the Kindle "book" existed in its own strange sort of techno-vaccuum, devoid of all the sensory elements that I enjoyed so much, and that gave me a sense of being in dialog with a writer, without ever fully realizing it.

The same thing has happened to us as we've moved from in-person, to telephone, to electronic communication: We've lost many of the body language, vocal intonation, and nonverbal cues that added richness, meaning, and nuance to our communications. The message is there, but the medium of email has stripped away some of the most important parts.

Recently, I read an article asserting that, in moving from telephone to email communication, we've moved to a measurably inferior technology for one of the first times in history. (Though Socrates himself feared that carving symbols onto stone would prove measurably inferior to passing knowledge along orally--that the invention of written language would make people lazy and weaken their intellects and their memories.) In any case, I had to put down my magazine to ponder this criticism of one of our newest methods of communication. (Don't get me started on texting and twittering--I'll save those for another installment.)

For years now I've accepted--even embraced--the supposed benefits of email: precision; a chance to edit and review before sending (spell check!); a written record of an exchange; and the independence of the two correspondents. Email, I believed, is the perfect medium: I can write to you at midnight, and you can reply at 10 AM--the conversation unfolds at our mutual convenience.

But of course, all that supposed convenience comes at a cost: Misunderstandings about tone and intent, inadvertently hurt feelings, the inefficiency of exchanging 10 emails when a single phone call would get the job done. When I'm absolutely honest, I have to say that email has not improved business communication--but it certainly has increased the quantity.

After test-driving a few different kinds of books on my Kindle, I've discovered that it works best for short, humorous essays, and light reading with lots of breaks between sections. For longer stories, ones I want to savor written by authors I want to know well, I'm sticking with the old printing press.

This discovery reminds me that we also need to choose the medium for our own messages very deliberately: Email is great for short, factual exchanges, and informal notes. Telephone calls or in-person meetings work better for occasions where the information is more complicated, there's significant emotional content, or where the real goal is to establish and deepen a relationship, not just share a quick laugh.

Thanks to the Kindle, for all that it is and all that it is not, and for reminding us that we still have to choose the right medium for each of our messages--and for our audience.