Assessing the Audience
When communicating virtually, it is often more difficult to "read" the other person than when communicating face-to-face. This is because:
- Body language may be missing from the conversation.
- Vocal cues may not be heard.
- Transmissions may cause delays making it more challenging to respond with the normal timing.
The lack of nonverbal feedback and the change in timing can cause messages to be misinterpreted. Additionally, the person's comfort level with the communication media may affect their attitude toward the topic of the conversation.
These issues can be minimized if we understand the other person's communication style and relationship with communication media. It can be useful to consider the following questions before communicating with others virtually:
- What is the natural mode of communication for the recipient?
- What media is easiest and most comfortable to use for the recipient?
- Which media is available to the recipient?
- How many participants are involved in the conversation?
Natural Communication Mode
We can usually determine the types of media a person will be most receptive to by observing how he or she chooses to communicate with others in both virtual and face-to-face interactions. Does he or she:
- Describe things well orally or in writing, or does he or she struggle with verbal descriptions?
- Prefer to write emails or talk on the phone?
- Follow instructions better when they are explained verbally or when they are written down?
- Draw pictures or diagrams or build models to express ideas?
Virtual communication will be most effective when you use media that emphasizes forms of communication that match the receiver's natural communication style.
It is reasonable to expect an employee to know how to use certain mediated communication systems, particularly if those systems are commonly used within the company. However, new employees and people outside the company may not have those skills.
Assuming technical skills exist may create a barrier to communication. Technologies that are new to a person may:
- Take time to learn.
- Take time to navigate.
- Cause frustration.
- Distract from the message.
Erroneous assumptions can be seen in the following common business examples:
- Office staff assuming floor personnel use email regularly enough to be proficient with it.
- Assuming an executive, who relies on an administrative assistant to manage communications, will be able to use personal conferencing equipment easily.
- Providing customer service through video conferencing without available technical support.
If the immediate desire is to accurately communicate a message and have that message well received and understood, technical competencies should be confirmed, not assumed, prior to communication.
Access and Availability
Two common errors that take place when new technologies are emerging are:
- Assuming those technologies are available in all environments.
- Assuming other people use those technologies.
One should always keep these things in mind:
- Geographical conditions may affect the availability of media.
- Political influences may affect the availability and affordability of media.
- Less developed regions often lag behind in systems that are well established in more progressive or more populated regions.
- Regulations, such as those in hospitals, may restrict the use of some communication devices.
- Certain structures and materials, such as buildings and walls, may interfere with transmissions.
- Inclement weather may affect line-of-site transmissions.
- The recipient may not have a particular mobile device or subscribe to a particular service.
Just as one should verify the other person's media capabilities, one should also consider the technology that is available to that person.
Number of Participants
The number of participants in a conversation is yet another consideration. Most forms of media work equally well when used for conversations:
- Between two people.
- Between larger groups of people.
However, some forms of media do not work as well with large groups, particularly if the conversation is interactive. For example:
- Chat rooms become very confusing when there many participants because:
- Messages can be missed.
- Slower typists can fall behind in the conversation.
- Multiple conversations may take place at the same time.
- Texting works well for broadcasts to large groups, but responses to the initial text will not include all recipients, thus prohibiting interaction.
Some technologies require modifications to be suitable for larger parties. For example, telephony, designed to be a two-party medium, requires additional layers of hardware or software to manage more than two connection points or participants. These additions include:
- Physical teleconferencing equipment that allows more than two connections.
- Software solutions (not always visible to the user) that permit multiple connections.
- Physically embedded speakers and microphones that allow more than one person to participate in a conversation at one site.
While these additional layers of technology may be well established, one cannot assume they are readily available to all participants, so it is important to verify that they are available to all participants prior to attempting communication.