Are you representing yourself properly on screen? These tips will help you hone your remote communication skills.
Digital communication can be exhausting.
Take Jack, a mid-level manager, who just got an email from his boss. It bugs him—or is he overthinking things? The last sentence—“That’ll be fine.”—ends in a period. It seems to dominate the screen, a black bead, a micro-bomb, lethal, suggestive and—Jack would swear—disapproving. Boss is pissed. But is he really? Did Jack screw up? If so, how? Is he reading into things? If he’s not, how can he work for a boss who’s so oblivious about the implications of a period?
When punctuation and shorthand set us off into bouts of uncertainty, self-doubt, anxiety, anger, self-hatred and mistrust, we can be sure we’re living in unmapped times.
None of us need a linguistics degree to know that the ways we communicate meaning today are more confusing than ever. Why? Well, our understanding of body language is almost exclusively informed by face-to-face interactions.
No traditional expert in body language could have predicted that today, the majority of our communications would be virtual. Contemporary communication relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what we say. That is, our digital body language. When the internet came along, everyone was given a dais and a microphone, but no one was told how to use them. We all just picked things up as we went along. And the mistakes we’ve made along the way have had real consequences in business.
In May, I published a research study with strategy and insights firm Quester called “The Digital Communication Crisis” to understand the challenges that we all face in workplace digital communication. Through a survey of almost 2,000 office workers, we found that over 70% experienced some form of unclear communication from their colleagues. This leads to the average employee wasting four hours per week on poor or confusing digital communications, which adds up to an average annual amount of $188 billion wasted across the American economy.
What is implicit in body language now has to be explicit in our digital body language.
Each of us as marketers may have different expectations and instincts about whether we should send a text versus an email, when to call someone, how long to wait before we write someone back, and how to write a digital “thank you” or apology without seeming insincere. These seemingly small choices create impressions that can either enhance or wreck our closest relationships in the workplace (not to mention in our personal lives).
Most of today’s boardrooms, workplaces and classrooms minimize the conditions necessary to foster and augment clear communication, leading to widespread distrust, resentment and frustration. There are more far-flung teams. There are fewer face-to-face interactions. There is virtually no body language to read (even today’s video meetings are scarce of eye contact or hand gestures).
How Can We Stay Connected When a Screen Divides Us?
The answer lies in understanding the cues and signals that we’re sending with our digital body language, and learning to tailor them to create clear, precise messages. What was implicit in traditional body language now has to be explicit with digital body language.
By embedding a real understanding of digital body language into your workplace, communication processes can provide both the structure and the tools that support a silo-breaking, trust-filled environment. This skill, in turn, will lead to enormous efficiencies and a new communication ideal, one where the language and punctuation we use across all mediums is careful, conscious and considered, and we’re always mindful of how our recipients might respond.
Below are four principles of basic digital body language signals and cues we send out every day that you can learn to employ and perfect in your own life.
1. The Medium Is the Message
Not all communication channels are created equal. Knowing how and when to use each one depends on the context. Every channel brings with it a set of underlying meanings and subtexts, and knowing how to navigate this array of hidden meanings is a telltale mark of digital savviness and—ultimately—professionalism.
If you’re stuck, ask yourself: How important or urgent is your message? And to whom are you communicating? If so, what’s better—email, Slack, the phone or a text?
And remember: You’re not bound to one or two communication channels. Switching between channels is a good way to indicate a shift in urgency of a message, or even to denote the closeness of a relationship.
2. Punctuation Is the New Measure of Emotion
In our digital world, our screens filter out the non-verbal signals and cues that make up 60%–80% of face-to-face communication, forcing us to adapt the emotional logic of computers. We’re rendered cue-less.
By way of compensation, our communication style relies on punctuation for impact. In an effort to infuse our texts with tone and to clarify our feelings, we might use exclamation points, capital letters or ellipses, or else hit the “like” or “love” button on messages we receive. But instead of clarity, sometimes our reliance on punctuation and symbols can generate more confusion.
My advice when it comes to punctuation and symbols: Use them judiciously.
If you’re worried about your digital tone, one way to clarify your feelings digitally is through the direct, easy-to-understand language of emojis. While emojis may be a learning curve for some, they can be critical to enhancing workplace efficiency and cultivating a corporate culture of optimal clarity.
3. Timing Is the New Measure of Respect
Face-to-face interactions require that both parties be available at the same time. This is less possible today, with most of us scrambling to keep up with our various inboxes.
This often means that communication happens at a slower pace. And in a digitally reliant world, the slightest pause between messages takes on an almost operatic meaning.
The thing is, most of the time a non-answer means nothing at all; the other person is simply tied up, doing something else, didn’t notice she’d gotten a text, had her volume turned off or forgot where she put her phone.
Still, we can always help ease anxieties around timing expectations by encouraging communication norms and best practices for your office. For example, leaders can mandate a response time for email—within the hour, particularly if it’s time sensitive or client-facing—to ensure team-wide accountability.
4. ’To,’ ‘Cc’ and ‘Bcc’ Are the New Cues of Inclusion
Think of an email as a sporting event. You and whomever else in the “to:” box are the athletes. If you don’t “cc:” or “bcc:” anyone, you’re just practicing, rallying before a match or throwing the ball around with a friend. When you add observers to the cc, suddenly other people begin to fill the stands. Add more people to the bcc, and you’re now swelling the VIP box seats with scouts, coaches and recruiters. From here, the stakes go up. If you choose to reply only to the other athlete, you’re having a private conversation no one else can hear, whereas “reply all” is equivalent to a booming voice coming in the overhead speakers that the entire stadium can hear.
Reply alls, ccs and bccs are necessary in most workplaces, but ask yourself who really needs to be included. This involves discernment, because some people insist on being a part of everything. Reply all should be limited to high-priority information you want to share with the entire team: meetings, announcements, agendas and enterprise-wide information. Always be conscious of the level of power dynamics and trust levels with your recipients—and avoid jumping to conclusions when you receive a message that catches you off guard.
With few face-to-face interactions with colleagues or classmates these days, there is virtually no body language to read. Understanding digital body language in marketing is essential for those of us who are committed to making strong relationships and making a mark, even in the swell of conference calls, emails, texts and Zoom engagements. Not only can it enhance your interpersonal interactions and liberate you from the fear and worry that digital communication inspires but it can give you a competitive advantage on your team grounded in transparency and empathy.