When I established my Executive Presence Training Program, body language was an important building block. Still is, when you consider that our strongest impressions are conveyed visually. The subtleties or nuances of even minimal body movements and gestures provide important signals. Body language speaks volumes.
Today, however, there’s another lingua franca in the workplace that has become the cornerstone of all business communications. Although often referred to as e-body language, I think “techno-communications” really covers it all — email, cell phones, mobile devices. When we can’t see a person speaking, we look for other interpretative clues to help decipher the message. Words and tone become the carrier pigeons for emails, text messaging and obviously, phone calls.
But just for a minute, let’s return to body language. Professor Albert Mehrabian is frequently quoted for his non-verbal communication research on what’s often called The 3 V’s: visual, vocal, verbal. His published studies indicate that, person-to-person, we interpret messages:
• Visually — 55% from facial expressions
• Vocally — 38% from voice quality and the way words are spoken
• Verbally —7% from the actual words
With techno or e-communications, the relevance of the actual word choice increases dramatically. Obviously, the spoken tone upstages language on phone calls — we hear anger or joy — but with emails, words become the stars of the show. From the minor 7% bit player in face-to-face communication, words now move up to 70%, a big change of roles.
Just for a moment, consider the permanence of email. The sender has no control over the message, in terms of its “replay” frequency or readership. And this is worrisome for the simple reason that as we have become more and more dependent on email and message texting instead of personal meetings, we’ve become not lazy or careless, just less attentive. When it comes to trendspotting, I’m on autopilot, and I’ve noticed this shift. There’s a time for easy-breezy e-chitchat, emoticons and buzzword abbreviations like “BTW,” but business email isn’t the place. I’m not advocating a return to old-fashioned correspondence. Au contraire. Techno-savvy communication is essential in our feverishly fast-paced world. I’m simply pointing out that attention-to-detail is mandatory with every email or text message.
We all make email typos. SpellChecker isn’t clever enough to highlight “tow” when we meant to type “two,” in a hastily composed message. Take an extra minute to proofread; it’s such an easy solution. Robert Whipple, CEO of Leadergrow and author of Understanding E-Body Language, raises an important point:
“Everyone knows that E-mail is different from conversations, but often people do
not consciously change communication patterns based on that knowledge. For
example, people cannot modify content of an e-mail based on the real-time visible reaction of the other party as is possible in face-to-face conversations. Instead, all of the information is presented at once without feedback. Misunderstandings or hurt feelings are common.”
Then there’s the embarrassment-email category. It could be called really-big-blunders and criticism heads the list. Believe me, a follow-up email with an “Oops” subject line just doesn’t strike the right chord! And remember, the original, offensive message is floating around in cyberspace for posterity. When in doubt, put the brakes on. Send the message to yourself and reassess its implications.
Texting’s inherent limitations are in some ways a bonus. We tend to be more forgiving about the often heavily abbreviated and occasionally hieroglyphic content. Mobile devices function as prompters or mini-message boards — it’s the protocols of usage that are the problem. Park your mobile device in your pocket or purse when you attend a meeting. Every time you’re tempted to make an exception, don’t. Remember instead your suppressed sense exasperation when fidgeting fingers signaled you were talking to yourself.
Same story for cell phones. Of course, we all know cell phones must be parked and off before meetings, big or small, but most people seem to think this rule only applies to others. The fact is, from cell phones to emails and mobile devices, techno-communications present a long learning curve. I think we’ve just started the journey.
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