When working with others, good communication is a critical part of getting things done. Blackberry, instant messaging, e-mail, poor phones, all give the illusion of great communication, but sometimes they can actually take it away. There are some simple ways to put it back.

This was all sparked by an interesting post over on Web Worker Daily on the merits of instant messaging versus email, which lead to quite a few comments. It reminded me of how easy it is to forget the basis of good communication. There is a good maxim:

  • Walk over and talk with the person face to face…
  • If you can’t do that, pick up the phone…
  • If you can’t get them on the phone, then, and only then, write to them.

I’m sure someone must have written this somewhere, but I’ve yet to find a source. It is great advice, for some very simple reasons. Modern communications are blurring some of the issues, but when selecting your means of communication there are still some basics to bear in mind.


If you were sad enough to look up words per minute on wikipedia and dig around a bit, you would find that:

  • People handwrite at about 31 words per minute (wpm).
  • A basic typist can reach 50-95 wpm, an advanced one above 120 wpm.
  • Conversations are around 200 wpm
    (adults can listen with full comprehension at 300 wpm – so that means most people have about 100 wpm of ‘not listening’ capacity!)
  • The average adult reads text at about 250 to 300 words per minute.

So, whilst we take in the most with reading, we output the most with speaking. That makes conversation the fastest mode of two-way communication that there is. That said, the fastest of typists can get close! If you rely on typing for your communication, invest in getting good at it.

Working on a daily basis with people in the area of perceptual psychology leads to the occasional discussion about the quality of communication, rather than the quantity. Communication is much more than the number of words per minute exchanged, and much has been written on that subject. There are many aspects to human communication, such as:

  • Verbal cues. Your voice, tonality, pitch, volume etc… Provide much additional information.
  • Visual (non-verbal) clues, from subtle ones like body language, to less subtle guestures and the use of physical props (drawings etc…).

These cues can provide emotional information that can be critical to the communication. Many of these things are just not present with im, email and phones. Unless you try to put them back in of course!

Words are generally only meaningful with some context around them. A common physical location, or an existing relationship can provide context. References to relevant past conversations, meetings or assumptions, also provide context.

An employee walks up and says “I want a copy of my job description.” – You might drawn one conclusion if it came after a dispute about an assignment, and they look tearful and angry. You might draw a very different conclusion if they were asking just after a conversation about the exciting new role you had just given them, with a happy smile on their face and a spring in their step.

Context provides reference points that help the listener to draw correct conclusions. Without this, the listener can come to the wrong conclusions and what needs doing, doesn’t get done. Context and emotional content help to provide the intent of the communication, which is critical to a sucessful outcome.

Maximise your communications…

Use the highest bandwidth possible – talk face to face whenever you can. It minimises misunderstandings and enables miscommunication to be dealt with straight away. Use a good quality communications link – a desk phone beats a mobile/cell phone conversation any day. Try to provide visual communication, even if you can’t talk face to face. Video conferencing, or even forwarding a diagram can work wonders.

Provide context for your communication – Explain the purpose of the communication, and verify that the background is understood. If it is not, then supply it. Explain your emotions too, if they are not clear and it is appropriate.

I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you, I hope they help!