Three steps to mastering digital communication

There are differences in the communication styles we use in each medium and very little guidance on when to use each of them and why, says  Sundance Brennan. He offers three basic steps to decide the right communication tool, style and tone

The Covid-19 outbreak of 2020 continues to accelerate the shift to remote work and has changed the way that we communicate with increased usage of online communication. For many, this shift has blurred the lines between email, and short digital communication in various forms like SMS (text), Slack, Microsoft Teams, and social media messenger services. It is important to navigate this new communication landscape as an expert because once you’ve sent a digital communication it’s difficult to unsend and impossible for someone to unsee that message.

Step 1. Know your audience

If we are initiating the communication then our first consideration is the intended audience for the message. Are we contacting a client, vendor, co-workers, subordinate, manager, or a friend? Will many people be on the message or a single recipient? If there are multiple people on a message, default to the comfort level of the person with the most professional communication style.

Email is the original ‘Electronic Mail’ and is the more formal style of digital communication. The audience here can include the direct recipient, plus anyone we want to CC (Carbon Copy) or BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) onto the message. The CC and BCC lines are important to use properly. The party or parties in the TO section of the email are the primary audiences, while the CC line will include anyone that needs to be aware of the message but doesn’t necessarily need to take action and the BCC line includes participants who are invisible to everyone else. No one else on the email knows that the BCC party has received the email, which makes it ideal for sending a message to many parties that don’t know each other, like a client list.

Like a letter, emails should have a salutation and a signature line. The subject line of an email should be a short relevant summary or a call to action. Consider the subject lines ‘Meeting Summary’, ‘Save this for your records’, ‘Requires Action Now’, ‘Waiting on your approval’ and ‘Low Priority – Review Needed’ as clear indicators of what the reader will expect within the message. The body of an email should be business appropriate full sentence structure without a lot of shorthand except for accepted industry or company jargon. Jokes and sarcasm aren’t appropriate in an email and don’t use all caps.

When we talk about text messages, we include things like group chats through applications like Slack and Microsoft Teams along with direct messages, either to a cell phone or an instant message through social media like LinkedIn. The temptation to use slang or shorthand in these messages is very high because we likely started communicating like this with friends long before we were working. The platform feels familiar, which makes it easy to slip into non-professional conversations or in a group chat to forget that everyone else can see the conversation. Group chats are great to encourage collaboration and they often enable sharing of files and instant feedback. Use your group chats to prepare for projects and gather information before sending out an official email on the subject. Keep the conversation on the subject and resist the urge to ask questions of the group before trying to find an answer on your own. Most group chats will allow you to use the @ symbol to identify if a question or comment is directed at someone in particular instead of the group at large.

Step 2. Know your scenario

I find it helpful to apply the classic Eisenhower decision matrix when choosing a communication method.

Is your message important but not urgent? Send an email.

Examples of this message type would include status updates, account updates, or confirmations. This message type also includes informational or one-way communication like newsletters or announcements. Emails can be saved and searched or sorted so any message that might be helpful or referenced in the future is great to send via email. You aren’t looking to start a conversation via email, you want to deliver an important message.

Is your message not important but urgent? Send a text.

Examples of this message type would include a request to sign for the food delivery or to pick up line 2 because it’s a salesperson who has been on hold for 10 minutes. These messages need someone to take action right away but aren’t important for daily success.

Is your message important and urgent? Send both an email and a text.

Examples of this message type would be when a client is angry and threatening to pull their account if they don’t get a call back in 5 minutes. This message is important and needs to be seen as soon as possible. Send it via email and text to make sure it’s addressed as soon as possible.

Is your message not important and not urgent? Don’t send the message.

Examples of this message would be a funny meme or joke you found online. Assume that in the business world every message is going to be saved and reviewed in the future. If your message isn’t business-related, it doesn’t need to be sent.

Step 3. Know your expectations

What do you want your message to accomplish? Does the receiver need to take some particular action or save the email for possible future reference? Be very clear about the response that you are looking for and ask for that response in your message. This goes for when you receive an email too, look for the correct response. If you receive a company newsletter, hitting the ‘Reply All’ button with a quick thank you to the publisher isn’t going to win you points if everyone in the company is now reading your private response. Add directions such as ‘Please Reply All with a solution on this right away’ or ‘Reply directly to me with recommendations’ to control the response. If you don’t need a response and your email is meant to be read and kept but doesn’t need any acknowledgment, say so by adding ‘Keep for your records’, ‘Save to your files’ or ‘No action needed at this time’ and your audience will behave appropriately.

If you have a text message it’s because you needed a fast-casual conversation or it was an urgent matter. Make sure it’s obvious, don’t assume that your tone or urgency will come through in a 2 sentence message. If it’s a time-sensitive issue then add that in, such as ‘The big meeting starts in 5 minutes, are we using my laptop for the presentation or yours?’ When you are clear and concise with your message you are more likely to get the response that you are looking for.

Step 3.5. Bonus tip

Most of us use the ‘Golden Rule’ to determine our communication style, we communicate with others how we would like to be communicated with. The problem with this philosophy in the business world is that we come from a variety of backgrounds and have different definitions of acceptable communication standards. We should instead communicate with others how they would like to be communicated with, we call this the ‘Platinum Rule’. It’s also worth noting that regardless of the steps outlined above, there are always exceptions. Communicate with others in the medium that they communicate with you, if they send you a text message, reply with a text message and take your queues from them.

If you know your audience, have thought about the scenario of your message and the response you are looking for, you are likely to skip over any embarrassing mistakes and be well respected as a communicator. Last but certainly not least, always assume that all communication is saved so never send anything in any form that you wouldn’t want your mom, boss, or client to read.

Sundance Brennan is the Branch VP of Training & Sales for American Financial Network, Inc.

He is the Amazon best-selling author of The Art of SalesFu and a professional sales coach with more than 20 years of experience in consumer direct sales, specialising in call centre strategy and training. You can reach him via

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