A Guide to Effective Communication in Today’s Digital World

  • Communication, Productivity

How Technology Has Changed the Way We Communicate

Once upon a time, people had limited options for exchanging information with one another. It’s probably hard for younger students today to imagine a world where you could only communicate by actually talking directly to another person, face to face or via telephone.

Now we have what can feel like limitless options to transfer information from one person to another. A wide range of disparate channels currently facilitate our chatter, from texting or Skyping with one person, to posting notes via social media that have the power to simultaneously reach everyone we’ve ever met.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at what constitutes communication in the modern age, and explore the ways that technology continues to alter how we talk and listen to each other:

We can communicate faster and more cost-effectively. If you’re in the same room with someone, there’s certainly nothing faster than just opening your mouth and talking. But in our global economy, many of the people we need to communicate with are in different locations. Technology allows us to easily connect with people worldwide using our choice of forums. We don’t have to wait for a stamped letter to make its way across the miles or rack up a big long-distance phone bill (as was the case not that long ago); instead via the Internet we can instantly reach almost anyone whether through email, instant message, social media, or countless apps. As the speed of communicating has ramped up, costs have been dramatically reduced.

We have access to more information. Information overload has become a reality, with the Internet providing much more knowledge at the click of a mouse than could even be imagined in the past. This means there is much more data that can be communicated about any topic than was previously possible, limited only by our own ability to find, absorb, and store this information. As a result, savvy communicators have learned to turn toward specific technology solutions to help them harness, organize, and manage the data deluge. Spreadsheet software, for example, allows users to more efficiently contain and categorize different types of data using commonly used formulas. Built-in tables and cell styles simplify data organization and presentation.

We communicate with a different style. The nature of communication has changed along with its increase in speed and volume. Mobile devices that fit in our pockets have tiny keyboards that make expedient communication desirable; hence an increase in the use of shortcuts, symbols, abbreviations, and new words that get the point across with fewer characters. (Think about Twitter, which has a 140-character minimum for every communication.) You can see this effect everywhere, from how we text to how we actually talk, as the new lingo has a way of making its way into the mainstream even when we aren’t typing it. Today’s office software addresses this by offering keyboard shortcuts to help users stay concise and save keystrokes.

We have more choices of how to communicate. As the communications playing field grows more complex, we have access to even deeper layers of connection with others. You can now collaborate with others in your work group using advanced collaboration tools that make it as easy to work with people in remote offices as when they’re right next to you. Office productivity tools allow teams to instantly share information. Users can save their work in the cloud or on their smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop. The tools give teams access to each other’s edits and comments on the same document or spreadsheet, facilitating communication and collaboration toward common goals.

While technology is often seen as the culprit behind a decline in face-to-face talking, we have to give credit to technology for opening up many new avenues for expanding the comparatively limited communication options we had available in the past. We can still talk to each other in person (and should make the effort to do so whenever possible to avoid becoming over-reliant on our devices)—but we can also be thankful for the ability to “choose our channel” when communicating today.

Effective Communication for Distributed Workforces

Working remotely has become the norm. Some industry experts predict that as many as 50 percent of employees will be telecommuting by 2020. As such, it’s important for distributed teams to find ways to communicate as effectively as possible despite being in different locations.

Yet communication holds special challenges when you and/or your colleagues work outside the office. Productivity tools can play a large role in improving team collaboration—but when you know how to communicate efficiently using these tools, the whole team’s performance will benefit.

Let’s explore some ways that your remote workforce can connect and communicate to best result:

Understand Your Tools

You can have the most powerful collaboration tools on the market, but if you don’t understand their full capabilities, then you’re missing out on their value. Some office software, for example, offers collaboration tools that allow you to track your edits and insert comments right into your documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.

These are powerful features and easy to use, but you need to follow a few simple steps to maximize your ability to communicate effectively with them:

Launch track changes. Remember to click on Track Changes in the menu bar after you’ve opened your document to activate this collaboration tool. Once you’ve done this, you can “talk” to your colleagues in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel files by adding or deleting words. Your team members will be able to tell exactly what you’ve changed since the revisions will show up as red characters.

Use display modes. Part of effective written communication involves being able to visualize how the finished product will look while it’s still a work in progress. You can use the Display for Review option in the Track Changes drop-down menu to toggle between different views of your document. Click between Final Show Markup and Original Show Markup modes to see your changes incorporated into the document, and changes made by each team member, respectively.

Make comments count. You can boost the effectiveness of your edits by inserting comments into your files to explain specific revisions. This is a good idea if you want to add some context to back up why you have suggested changing the language in a document. As an example, suppose that using the Track Changes feature, you’ve decided to insert a source that supports some new data. In your comment, you can explain where you found the source and why you think the team should include it.

Be Present Even When You’re Absent

When you work in the same office with your colleagues, you have the benefit of their physical presence to aid face-to-face communication. Finding out what someone wants or is thinking can be as simple as walking down the hall and asking them directly.

Remote teams, however, often need to get more creative in their information exchange. Email, phone calls, Instant Message, video chats, and other collaborative apps and tools become central communication vehicles when you work outside the office, so it’s important to sharpen your skills when conveying information primarily through these types of media:

Choose your words carefully. Be aware that people often misinterpret tone in email and Instant Message correspondence since it can be difficult to accurately express emotion in writing. Take care to phrase your emails and IM communications as carefully and concisely as possible. When replying, address all key points requested by the sender to minimize back and forth.

Don’t try to read between the lines. If you’re unclear about someone’s tone in an email, pick up the phone and talk to him or her, or schedule a video chat. Often what seemed flat or negative via email was not intended that way. Don’t guess at someone’s emotion, assume the worst, or leave accurate communication to chance. When it doubt, find out.

Listen and learn. Listening carefully is more than half of effective communication. Just as telecommuters need to work harder to express themselves carefully long-distance, they also need to tune in and listen to others. Whether you’re reviewing a colleague’s tracked changes in a document, participating in a video chat, or having a phone conference, focus fully on the person who is speaking. Don’t interrupt others—and just as important, don’t let yourself be interrupted or distracted by your electronic devices when others are talking.

Distributed workforces can learn to communicate as efficiently as co-located teams, but it takes a little more legwork to make it happen. Take advantage of the useful features that collaborative tools offer, and make extra effort when sharing or receiving information with coworkers in a different location. If you can master the skills behind effective communication, you’ll get the best results from your remote workforce. 

Communication Etiquette in Today’s World

With so many new media competing to be our choice to communicate with each other, it can be hard to keep track of the proper way to use each vehicle. Emailing etiquette, for example, has its own business etiquette compared to texting or instant messaging etiquette.

To help you keep everything straight, review these tips on the best way to communicate using each option:

Email Etiquette

Be conscious of tone. Many an emailer has regretted sending a business message that conveyed too much emotion. It can be easy to misinterpret tone in written communications, particularly emails, as it’s challenging to accurately convey a neutral tone. Avoid use of all capital letters since the recipient can interpret that as yelling, and go easy on the exclamation points. Don’t use multiple punctuation marks (such as ??) since those too can suggest a demanding tone.

Avoid emoticons and slang. Many email programs come equipped with a wide range of happy face images and other emoticons to enhance your personal communications, but these have no place in business correspondence. Think of email as an extension of your professional presence—if you wouldn’t use slang or language shortcuts like “2u” in a formal business letter, then don’t use it in a business email.

Be careful when you reply. Sometimes in haste when composing an email, we can accidently press the wrong key. Slow down when preparing to reply to a sender’s email, since a mistaken click at this juncture can mean “replying all” to a message that you meant to send to only one person, or sending a message to the wrong recipient—errors that can be costly on many levels in business. Verify who is in the “To:” line before clicking “Send.”

Texting Etiquette

Wait for an invite. Unlike with email interactions, you should never assume that there’s an open invitation to send unexpected text messages to colleagues or clients. Texting is a more personal way to connect with people, and it’s generally reserved for one’s inner circle: family, personal friends, and perhaps select business associates. Even if you know your boss’s or coworker’s cell phone number, you should always request permission to text any of your work-related contacts before doing so.

Mind the clock. If you do have a green light to text specific work associates, remember that the timing of texting does not match email’s relative open-endedness. With email, though it’s best to send messages only during regular business hours, you have a little more latitude to work on your own schedule since the recipient generally won’t be expected to see and respond to your message after hours. With texting, since your words will be sent directly to the recipient’s smartphone, you might wake someone up unintentionally with a late-night text if they forgot to silence their phone. Avoid sending texts after standard business hours unless you’ve been asked to do so.

Stay professional. Texting has its own alternate language that consists of abbreviations and acronyms to make it easier to communicate briefly on a small keyboard. That said, you should keep business communications professional and reserve texting lingo for friends and family. Though it takes a little longer, spell out words in full like “you” rather than using the abbreviation “u” so that your colleagues take you seriously.

Instant Messaging Etiquette

Check in before interrupting. Since IM is one of the quickest ways to reach someone directly at their desk, it’s good form to touch base with a short greeting when sending an initial instant message. Start out with a simple “Hi—is this a good time to connect?” before launching into a longer message about what you need. This will confirm whether the recipient is available to respond in detail or not.

Keep it short. When used as a tool for office communication, IM is designed for quick-hit information exchange that can keep you moving ahead with your work rather than stopping for a longer face-to-face or phone chat. Limit your IM use to questions that someone can respond to quickly. If a longer response is required, choose a different tool or get up and ask your question in person.

Avoid bad news. Whether you’re using IM, text, or email, it’s best not to share negative information. If you have bad news to share with someone, while it may feel easier to type a quick instant message, it’s disrespectful of your colleague to do so. If you need to have an important conversation, schedule time to talk in person ideally, or by phone if your coworker is in a different location.

No matter which tool you’re using, it’s polite to end your conversation with a brief closing comment like “Thanks for your help!” so that the other person knows you’re signing off. By following these simple etiquette pointers, you’ll help foster your business relationships, which can make a meaningful difference in your career.

How Do You Spell That in a Tweet?

As we’ve been discussing, our brave new world of social media and hyper-connectedness has brought about many changes in how we communicate. While differences in etiquette between types of media are one way that technology has us thinking with different hats on depending on which tool we’re using, variations in spelling, grammar, and style also need to be considered.

It’s not always easy to sort through all of the vagaries of grammar rules used in our communication methods, from texting and tweeting to IM and email. Let’s look at usage guidelines for the various options when it comes to two common pitfalls—grammar and slang language:

Is proper grammar, like capitalization and punctuation, necessary:

…in a text? It depends on whom you are texting with, and in what context. Text messages can be written in either formal English with proper caps and punctuation (when texting with colleagues, your boss, or clients and potential clients) or can be written more informally for speed when you’re texting with close friends and family.

…in a tweet? Being lazy about grammar—particularly capitalization—in tweets can lead to people misunderstanding your meaning. This is true in hashtags as well, since you may be omitting spaces between words in your hashtag or your whole tweet to stay within Twitter’s 140-character limit. The same goes for proper use of periods and other punctuation marks. Since tweets are meant to make an impression through their succinct and powerful statements, it can reflect poorly on the tweeter to use grammar incorrectly.

…in an IM? The same rules apply as for a text—consider your recipient and the context to decide whether to go formal or informal as far as grammar rules go. You can also follow texting and instant message guidelines when using the comments feature of collaboration tools with an office productivity software to communicate with a distributed workforce.

…in an email? Unless you’re writing to a very close friend or family member with whom you have a shared understanding about informality in your messages, it’s best to err on the side of caution when composing emails. Make the effort to proofread your emails before you click send to ensure that your grammar is correct, including capitalization and punctuation.

  Can you use shorthand and slang:

…in a text? Texting is designed for fast, efficient communication—within reason. You always want to keep the receiver in mind when writing a text message that contains popular acronyms like BRB or NP—never use such informal terms with business colleagues, even in a text. However, if it’s your personal pal, then use of shorthand terms will probably be expected.

…in a tweet? Twitter is a form of social media rather than an instant messaging service or texting platform. The latter have more flexibility for informality since their goal is quick-hit, one-on-one communication. Tweeters are in a much more public forum, so they should avoid using abbreviations like LOL and other insider slang that can put off some people in your audience.

…in an IM? As long as you aren’t on your work Instant Messenger talking to a superior or important client, some use of basic shorthand terms is probably OK. However, go easy on any slang, since it can make you look unprofessional even in the IM context.

…in an email? For business correspondence, it’s a bad idea to pepper your message with shorthand like “RU” instead of just typing out “are you.” Even if you think you’re writing to an understanding coworker who is a friend, it’s easy for work emails to get forwarded to others around the office either intentionally or by accident. Err on the side of more formal communication when crafting them.

As you can see, there are no easy answers when it comes to making the right grammar choices via your communication tools of choice. But if you follow these basic guidelines, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding a serious faux pas.

How Are Modern Communication Tools Changing Our Language?

We began this guide by talking about how technology has changed the way we communicate. But it’s not just the umbrella term of tech that’s having an impact on our dialogue—it’s also the specific digital communication tools that are now literally at the tips of everyone’s fingers.

Modern communication tools include everything from your Instant Messenger on your computer and smart phone, to social media forums like tweets and posts, to the ubiquitous options of email and texting. They also include collaboration tools that many distributed workforces are now relying on to exchange information more effectively and improve team productivity.

These tools are not only helping us talk to one another—they’re also changing the very language that we use to do the talking. We’ve touched on some of the diverse ways that digital tools are affecting elements of our communication, from etiquette choices in various media, to shifts in grammar usage depending on whether you are sending a text, tweet, or email.

There are other even more basic ways that our communication tools are making us talk differently, infiltrating new language into our conversations. Let’s explore a few of them:

Talking in pictures. Emoticons and Emojis have in many cases replaced actual words we might have once used to express how we feel. These icons picture everything from simple happy faces and hearts, to detailed images that are designed to help us convey—in a theme-related way—practically anything you can think of, from sports to holidays to family life. In addition to the panels of icons that many of our communication tools now come equipped with, actual photos are in a sense replacing some of our language as well, since so many more people are walking around with a camera phone in their pocket and sending out images as updates, rather than spelling things in words to describe what they’re doing.

Spillover of tech slang. It’s questionable whether to use slang and jargon, common in texting and IMing, in certain contexts (and ill-advised in business communications). But despite how some frown on the informality that tech tools have brought to our digital conversations, the same type of language is seeping into our everyday verbal communications as well. For example, people are as likely to say “LOL!” out loud in reaction to something funny or sarcastic that someone says as they are to type it as an IM. The key is to avoid using online shorthand terms inappropriately, whether in the real world or digital one.

Sentence spacing. A heated debate is currently raging about one of the most basic elements of our written language—spacing between sentences. The brevity afforded by digital communication tools have helped sway many language experts over to a preference for using a single space after a period at the end of a sentence. However, others still cling to what many techies think is an “old school” approach of sentence structure, inserting a double space between each sentence. Language style guides from Chicago to MLA are as divided on the issue as individuals. If it helps you make your decision, keep in mind that the double-space rule was originally born of necessity back when typewriters graced every desk rather than desktop and laptop computers.

This is the tip of the iceberg of how our communication tools are changing how we talk and write—and more shifts will continue to arise as new technologies bring revised ways of getting our points across. While it’s challenging, try to keep up with the metamorphosis of language as best you can—and hang on for the ride!

Is Social Media Slang an Evolution in Language?

G2G. BRB. IDK. TTYL. Language purists and others who prefer a more formal approach to communication style—even online—may bristle at these types of terms. But while Internet slang and other forms of word shortening and abbreviation can make you look unprofessional if you use them at work, they may serve an important purpose when used at appropriate times in general communication.

While you may not go so far as to believe that commonly used IM and social media slang terms like the ones used above represent an evolution in language, it’s hard to argue the fact that such shortened expressions can improve our communication’s efficiency. Here are a few ways that that such jargon might actually be offering us a better way to exchange information rather than degrading the language:

You can make your points faster.

Whether you love them or hate them, slang terms clearly help you “say your piece” more quickly and succinctly than it was possible to do before.

For example, it’s easier to peck out “TTYL” than it is to type the entire phrase “talk to you later”—yet as long as your recipient understands the same digital language, you’ve communicated your thoughts in just 4 keystrokes rather than 17.

Multiply out that savings in minutes and effort across multiple expressions in each message you craft daily, and you just might save enough time by the end of the week to get up from your desk early and catch a movie.

You can use fewer words.

Not only has social media led to acronyms and shorter words, but also to shorter sentences and fewer words used in phrases. The obvious ultimate example of this is the tweet, which through its 140-character limit imposes a discipline of language on its composer. Back in the day, grammarists would often cite Strunk and White’s Rule #17 from The Elements of Style: Omit Needless Words.

The rule went like this: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

This advice from 1920 seems doubly relevant to today’s social media–infused world. If we modify Strunk and White’s advice to the Twittersphere, it would emphasize that not only should paragraphs and sentences contain no unneeded sentences or words, but that phrases should contain no extra characters at all. Now that’s economy of writing.

You can pull from a wider vocabulary.

The language that’s evolving through social media is literally giving us more words to integrate into our writing and speech. While some of the words aren’t ones that you’d choose to use in the office, plenty of them are becoming familiar additions to the dictionary each year.

Language Magazine points out that research has shown social media and communication technology has led to a faster evolution of the English language—in fact, it’s moving so quickly that many parents can’t keep up with the new slang terms that their kids are coming up with. (Not that this is new!)

But what is new are all the recently invented social media terms we have to choose from. Even words like LOL are eligible for a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary as long as the general population uses it for at least five years. There are plenty of other candidates out there that may end up with an official spot in the OED alongside selfie (which was added in 2013) and FOMO (fear of missing out), which was added in 2015. New words mean more choices for writers who are looking for ways to express nuance, which is another way that social media slang may be inadvertently helping to improve communication efficiency.

Why You Need to Know About Communications Protocols

We’ve discussed how various elements of communication—from etiquette and style, to grammar and the language itself—continue to morph and mold our digital world.

Now let’s dig down deeper into what’s behind our ability to communicate fluently through our tech tools, from collaboration tools used in office productivity suites, to the Internet and social media. To do so, we need to look at some communications protocols, which are rules that computers use to talk to each other.

Protocols—which are established by international agreement—allow for standard methods of transferring and processing information. Without protocols telling computers about what format to exchange information in and exactly how to exchange it, they would be isolated units unable to be networked and communicate with other electronic devices.

When you see a string of different types of protocols written out, they look like alphabet soup: HTTP, IP, FTP, IMAP, and POP3 are a few of the more common protocols. Let’s make some sense of them by seeing what these acronyms entail:

HTTP and HTTPS: These are the basic protocols that allow for Internet data transfer. The first acronym stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, and the second for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (which facilitates a secure network communication). These protocols allow scripting languages including HTML and CSS to travel from a server to a browser. Technically speaking, when you use HTTPS, you’re including an additional protocol called SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) on top of standard HTTP.

IP: The Internet Protocol is the oldest and most well-known protocol, which takes care of basic networking. It uses Internet addresses to communicate, which is why all computers on standard TCP/IP networks must contain a numeric address.

FTP: Created back in the early 1970s, File Transfer Protocol is another longstanding basic protocol—really the standard network protocol. It can be used for file transfer from one computer or operating system to another over a TCP/IP network and to upload files to a website. It’s an older protocol though and less frequently used today, particularly since there are some security issues when it’s left at default settings. Alternatively, a more secure protocol is FTPS.

IMAP: Short for Internet Message Access Protocol, the IMAP helps with accessing email on remote servers, and is in fact one of the most commonly used protocols for email retrieval, alongside POP3 (see below). Most well known email clients including Outlook Express and MS Outlook support both IMAP and POP3. The protocol works with email messages stored on email servers where users can access them via their email application of choice or a web browser. Often used in large networks, IMAP’s forte is allowing users to quickly and easily retrieve their messages right on their own systems.

POP3. As mentioned above, most email apps use the Post Office Protocol (POP3). Almost all users of Internet service providers rely on POP3 to retrieve their emails. IMAP and POP3 don’t work together though, so users must choose one or the other to help manage their email program.

There are plenty of other communication protocols as well. These include DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) that network computers use to obtain IP addresses and other settings from the DHCP server, and UDP (User Datagram Protocol), which is a fast, lightweight protocol that common network apps like online games use to send short messages called datagram.

While these protocols may seem obscure and removed from your daily life, rest assured that the Internet as we know it today wouldn’t exist without these standards to guide communication between computers and other electronic devices. Take a minute to let that sink in, and then give a moment of thanks for these rules that allow us all to experience fast and secure data transmission between our various communication tools.

Staying Relevant Through Modern Communications Tools

As you’ve read through this guide on communications, perhaps you’ve had mixed feelings about the impact of our digital tools and all of the changes that they’ve created. We’ve explored in detail how our communications tools are leading the entire culture to adapt our language and how we convey and receive information. As we’ve done so, we’ve seen that:

Technology has fundamentally changed how we communicate, making us not only able to communicate faster and more cost-effectively with a different style, but also giving us access to more information and greater choices in how we connect with others.

Today’s digital productivity tools can help us work more efficiently with colleagues inside and outside the office, improving team collaboration.

Our etiquette around communicating has evolved to such a degree that we need to know how to distinguish between what we say (and don’t say) when we’re on email versus texting, instant messaging, or using social media.

Context matters when determining whether we should use proper grammar, capitalization, and punctuation as opposed to Internet slang or shorthand.

Social media and slang terms actually may be contributing to a more rapid evolution of our language, allowing us to make our points faster with fewer words while drawing from a wider, ever-expanding vocabulary list of innovative options.

Communications protocols represent the technical side of our multiple devices’ ability to communicate with each other, allowing us to be networked and perpetually looped in.   Change in any form is rarely easy—and when it involves a shift in our entire way of working and talking to each other, it’s clear why people often resist it. It’s tempting to look backward, imagining that things were better in the “good old days” when face-to-face communication was the undisputed king when it came to information exchange.

But when we look again at the list above of exactly what some of these changes have led to, there’s no doubt that many benefits are infused within the challenges. Whether you examine what’s happening from a technical view or a linguistic one, shifting your perspective and approach alongside the new tech tools is the next step necessary to stay relevant in business.

Instead of glancing backward, ask yourself what you can do to keep up with this brave new world that revolves in many ways around new media and emerging forms of electronic communication. Get up to speed on the productivity advances that our new digital tools have to offer. Learn everything you can about the technologies that can help you master this new information age, from cloud storage to collaboration solutions. In short, when you devote yourself to understanding the change that’s happening all around you, then you become a meaningful part of the evolution.