Fire Up Your     Conversations:         When to Communicate Electronically or by Voice

Named by Inc. as one of the top 100 leadership speakers, Shelley Row, P.E., is an engineer and former government and association executive. Shelley’s leadership work focuses on developing insightful leaders who can see beyond the data.

Imagine a fireplace blazing on a cold winter’s day. It could be a gas fireplace, like mine, or a wood fireplace like my friend’s.  While both fireplaces warm the room, the experience feels different depending on the fireplace. (Many would say there’s no substitute for a “real” fireplace.)

In a similar way, everyday we choose the method by which we communicate with our colleagues – electronic (i.e. email, text, instant messaging) or vocally (video or phone calls, face-to-face.)  In either style, we use words to share information, but the experience is different. An insightful leader knows when to use each approach.

Like a gas fireplace, email, texting and messaging platforms allow for quick and easy exchange of information.  Email is your best choice anywhere simple communication is appropriate, the opportunity for misunderstanding is small, and the situation requires little nuance.  Use email to:

  • coordinate schedules for meetings or events
  • distribute meeting agendas
  • confirm action items
  • summarize key discussion points
  • relay short, simple or low-sensitivity messages
  • document conversations, meetings or events to serve as a record
  • distribute technical information or other data such as specifications, price quotes or reports
  • disseminate a non-critical message to many recipients (such as holiday greetings, thank yous)
  • solicit input for future discussion

Like the “real” fireplace, vocal conversations take more energy than email.


Like a wood fireplace, vocal communication provides for nuance. My friend’s wood-burning fireplace ismore time consuming, messier and requires frequent caretaking. And, it provides a more complete fireplace experience.

Talking in-person and, to some extent, talking on the phone and on video calls, allows a more complete communication experience. Hearing someone’s voice, tones, volume, pace, and urgency, along with seeing their expressions and body language, provide insight into intangible factors that can make or break good communication.

Vocal communication is essential for any situation where nuance is key, multiple interpretations are possible and where an emotional reaction can sway the outcome.  Use a vocal approach for

  • conversations designed to reach complex decisions
  • performance feedback and mentoring conversations
  • discussion of goals and objectives
  • sensitive subjects
  • confidential information
  • delivery of good or bad news with significant implications
  • personnel issues or disciplinary action
  • topics that need full understanding, discussion and interaction

Like the “real” fireplace, vocal conversations take more energy than email. However, just as there’s no substitute for a “real” fireplace, there’s no substitute for a “real” conversation when the situation calls for it.

Use your insight to assess when you need “real” discussion. Then, make the time and bring the energy to engage and connect.

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