Digital, Written Communication

May 18, 2021

For this week’s blog I was inspired by a great article I read in the Harvard Business Review (so won’t try and claim all the content as my own original ideas!). It’s a movement away from most of our other directly recruitment-focussed blogs, but I found it a timely reminder and particularly pertinent to today’s intra/post Covid business world.

For the best part of the last 20 years, the business world has been transitioning steadily from a place where the vast majority of meaningful interaction takes place face-to-face, to one where virtual communication is king. Trans-Atlantic flights for 1 hour meetings have been replaced with Microsoft Teams calls, team brainstorm sessions in the breakout area have become Slack Channel discussions, and boozy BD events have (for the most part) been replaced by mailshots and targetted PPC marketing.

This movement has been accelerated massively over the last 15 months as the whole world has moved to a remote working model of some sort, and facetime has been replaced by FaceTime®.

Broadly speaking, we have changed from a world in which we speak to each other in order to conduct business, to one where we write to each other (or more specifically, we type).

I remember during my early days in recruitment the telephone was not just king, it was the only acceptable weapon. Our superiors targetted us to achieve daily and weekly phone hours (10hrs/week was the minimum expectation) and specific outgoing call numbers. Cries of “get them on the phone” reverberated in your eardrums when you gave even the slightest indication that a candidate or client may be trying to communicate with you via email. This was the way the job had always been done, and it certainly wasn’t going to change on their watch (“rage, rage against the dying of the light” kinda vibes).

Now in fairness, a lot of the reasoning behind this is completely valid. A phone conversation (or better yet an in-person meeting) allows for a deeper, more detailed interaction. It enables you to get that ‘gut feeling’ for what the person is thinking (“what are they not saying here?”), it increases your ability to influence the other person, it reduces the chance of your words being misinterpreted, and a myriad of other hugely positive benefits. To this day there are a lot of conversations I have to have as part of my day-to-day job that I will only conduct over a call.

However, the world has moved on and everyone has accepted that in this digital age, the written word is our primary mode of communication. What’s more, Whatsapp/Text/Slack/Teams etc all have their place, but Email is still Numero Uno in the business world.

With all of the above in mind, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the potential pitfalls of email communication, and therefore how important it is to communicate clearly and carefully.

As part of the transition from spoken to written communication, we have replaced listening with reading. The issue is, we spend less time reading something in full and instead are prone to skim through text, taking away the gist of the key points, which means our overall comprehension of the message is reduced. Then when we come to reply, we can feel overwhelmed by the volume in our inbox and cut corners, ultimately sounding either blunt or confused/confusing.

The author of HBR’s blog, Erica Dhawan, says that “reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy”, which I think is a lovely summation. Erica then goes on to highlight a couple of key things to be mindful of.


There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a short email (or indeed a long email), but what you are responding to and thus what you are trying to achieve will dictate the most appropriate length. Think of it in the context of these key pillars:

  • Is this email accurate?
  • Is this email clear?
  • Is this email respectful?

For example, if you have received a lengthy email summarising they key points from a recent meeting and finished off with three questions, your response may need to be relatively long. You should indicate agreement with or amendments to the points made, then answer each of the three question individually. This is accurate, clear and respectful.

If you have received an email with a single yes or no question, but the sender has taken the time to address you by name, ask after you and sign off with a “Kind Regards”, a “Yes” reply ticks the boxes of accuracy and clarity, but is arguably not respectful.

Finally, perhaps a client has emailed asking (politely) for an urgent update on a matter you are dealing with. Whilst you may feel obliged to write a longer email given that this a client, actually you may be better keeping this one brief to ensure the information requested is as clear and accurate as possible.

One thing that can have a big impact on this is ego. We have probably all worked in companies where certain senior individuals or important clients love a ‘one-worder’. And if you haven’t… maybe it’s you! This approach can make a person seem ‘important’ at a surface level, but more likely this approach will result in sloppy sentences, bad grammar and confusion, with the overall message being “I am too busy/important for this”. The knock-on effect will be that at best it takes the recipient time and energy to decipher the hidden meaning, and at worst that the resulting misunderstanding leads to costly mistakes.

I agree that time is precious – no matter who you are – but there is always a happy medium that can be reached where your communication is accurate, clear and respectful, no matter who the recipient is.


Erica defines the tone as ‘the overall attitude or character of the message’. Again she brings it back to empathy, positing that the tone is the greatest tool you have at your disposal in order to communicate empathy.

When thinking about tone, consider the following:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What do they want from me?
  • How will this message make them feel?

Back to the ‘one-worders’ I mentioned above… if a more junior person within your business has sent you an email with a suggestion, for example something their team can do to increase productivity, and you reply “Agreed”, how is that going to be received? I think firstly the recipient will feel confused as to what the resulting action should be, and secondly they will feel dismissed on a personal level. Far better to respond “This is a good idea – please could you come up with an action plan which I can bring to the next board meeting?”.

Another really good point Erica makes is to not reply for the sake of it – you should have something substantive to offer. If you really cannot give your response the time and effort required then an acknowledgement email is a good idea, letting them know that you’ve received the message and will get back to them on it as soon as possible.

Email vs. Talking

 To bring this blog full circle, one important thing to bear in mind – no matter how well written your email is – is “would I be better served having a conversation with this person?”. If you are confused by a message you’ve received and are worried about responding in kind, there’s no harm at all in suggesting a call, video call or face-to-face meeting to discuss the matter. The same goes if you are worried that an email you want to send could be misconstrued.

Cues such as eye contact, body language and tone of voice are all incredibly valuable, non-verbal means of communicating, so it is important that we continue to appreciate their place in the professional world. However, where their absence is enforced by particular circumstances, following the advice laid out above should help ensure effective, constructive digital communication!