Communication Preferences and Jane’s Voicemail Message

Jane recently changed her voicemail message to the following:

I nearly choked while laughing the first time I heard this. What she says is true. I usually end up listening to her voicemail messages for her.

The proliferation of communication formats provides more possibilities for how we communicate. With all these format possibilities, we need a few best practices.

As a best practice, if you’re trying to maximize your communication with another person, you should generally respond in the format the queries come. If someone emails you, send them an email back. If someone calls you, call him or her back. If someone instant messages you, return with an instant message. If someone replies to you on Twitter, send a Twitter reply back. If someone comments on your blog, respond in a comment below their comment. If someone writes you a snail mail letter, dig out the old pen and paper and find a stamp to reply. If someone texts you, text them back. Why? Because that’s their communication preference, and you’re more likely to succeed at communicating with the person if you align with their preferences for communicating.

Additionally, your response can be approximately equivalent to the inquiry, for the most part. If someone writes you a two-sentence email, you don’t need to respond with a novella. Part of the appeal of Twitter is the 140 character limit.

It’s certainly not a requirement to cater to someone’s communication preference. If communicating successfully with that person isn’t a high priority, let them align with your communication preferences. But at least let them know what your preferences are, as Jane does in her voicemail. (By the way, the voicemail has worked well so far. People have stopped leaving her voicemail messages and are actually sending her email instead.)

What are my communication preferences? I prefer email for most communications. Except when I’m driving, and then I prefer the phone. I find instant messaging somewhat annoying, unless I’m bored and in the mood to chat. Twitter is fine unless the conversation clearly requires more than 140 character exchanges. But generally I don’t mind the format. I understand that each person prefers a different medium for communicating, and I try to accomodate that. It all comes together into one on my BlackBerry anyway.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • justelise

    There are exceptions to this rule. If someone leaves you a voicemail with no content that just asks you to call them back, I think it’s rude of them to do that, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to reply by email. The voicemail did not give me any specific reason to call, so why should I?

    If you’re in a situation where people are hesitant to put anything in writing because they are trying to avoid responsibility, which is very common in the workplace, you should try to get them to communicate via email as often as possible.

  • Jane

    Hey, wait a minute . . . are you calling me impolite?

  • Jan Gerston

    Tom, Love your blog, where I have been lurking since I found it. It’s my first source for technology updates. Only to another technical editor would I bother making the following correction.

    People often ask me the most commonly misspelled word in the English language. Empirically speaking, it is accommodate or accommodations. Maybe check your last paragraph?

    Jan (the stickler)

  • Amber @ Classic Housewife

    LOL! In Jane’s defense:

    At least she’s being honest and up front that she doesn’t check her voicemail. She’s not alone in this, my husband is the same way (although he never thought of leaving his email address in the message.) 😉 No matter how much he tells people not to leave a message, they still do. I agree with the “typically respond in the same format” suggestion, but what about respecting the other person’s preferences? Some people don’t like to receive text messages because it’s not a part of their plan and it costs money. Some people don’t like voicemails because they recognize they’re not good at listening to them in a timely manner (and also, listening to them uses minutes.) So what to do then?

  • Robert Nagle

    Here’s the issue as it relates to technical writers. How should you communicate with SMEs? Sometimes having an email exchange can be very inefficient. (but if the writer has time to ask lengthy questions and needs something authoritative, then it is good).

    Telephoning saves time for both listener and interviewer, but it runs the risk of the interviewer not taking good notes or remembering what was said.

    Sometimes SME’s prefer email exchanges over online chat or telephone, and usually I defer, but there are times when I feel a phone conversation would save time all around. That mainly happens when I’m in exploratory mode, trying to figure out what the need is and what concepts are involved.

  • Robert Nagle

    Also, I’ll throw out the idea of recording telephone conversations so there is a permanent record to refer to. Skype calls in particular make this easy (there are free and low-cost plugins which make this possible).

    I just finished an hour long telephone conversation with an SME. Valuable information, very complex, I took good notes. Three days later, I can understand about 50% of my notes. I really wish I had recorded it. (That said, it would have taken 3+ hours for the SME to write the answers down, and they still would have been incomplete).

    Part of the challenge of technical communication is that information can often be lost even if the explainer and listener are highly skilled.

  • Tom

    Thanks for all your thoughts on this post. I didn’t mean to sound so negative towards Jane’s voicemail message. My tone just didn’t come across right, so I updated the post tonight.

    In short, I think it’s a good idea to let others know what your communication preferences are. It’s only necessary to cater to another person’s communication preferences if you’re trying to connect most efficiently with that person (adapting yourself to their preferred medium). But often times that isn’t a high priority. Often times you’re just trying to quickly finish off an errand list and fire off other responses to various communications.

  • Kevin

    nice post, i think communication preferences are an interesting topic, i know that there are so many these days, i’m better at checking some than others. I think these should be condensed, i know phones are becoming all in ones, but its not done well enough yet.

  • Joey Logano

    Hah, I have never heard of someone telling someone to email them. But… I have heard a friend of mine leave in his voice mail that he will probably not check it.

  • Mark

    Hey this is a very original idea for me! I never listen to my voice mail, I am just not used to it and always forget to check it, I am a mess!

  • kikibibi

    I used to be in executive management at a large Fortune 100 insurance firm. Our CEO and others on the management team routinely used VM for vital communications. As in “Hi Kiki, On Monday, I’m speaking to Wall Street analysts and then later being interviewed live by CNBC. Please make me a presentation with the following 27 things…” and then he’d go on in detail about the 27 things. And he’d leave me this voice mail on Saturday afternoon. And I wouldn’t hear it until I got to work on Monday. And I’d be sunk! If only that’d come in via email (Blackberry), I’d have been right on top of things. Also, if I had any questions and needed immediate answers, the only way to reach him back was via his work voice mail – not like I was gonna call him at home!
    It got so bad, that I was listening to my work voice mail hourly on evenings and weekends. I’d listen to messages on the way into work, and commonly had 10+ in the queue (from overnight), and the entire 45 minute drive would be spent listening to voice mail!
    20+ lbs, 3 years of missing my family, and blood pressure of 200+/125+ later, I left that job behind for good! BP under control, family recognizes me now. Life is good.

  • kikibibi

    P.s., my husband has 2 cell phones and a work voice mail, and a voice mail philosophy similar to Jane’s. His outgoing message “Hi this is DB. Please do not leave me a message as this voice mail box is rarely checked. Please call my office at xxx.” Then when you call his office, it says “please call my cell phone” but he doesn’t specify WHICH cell phone. People just end up emailing him in frustration!

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