Most of today’s communication happens online. It’s happening whether you’re asking your coworker when they’ll finish their task or if you’re chatting with a support agent to find out why your shipment is taking so long to arrive.
Online communication refers to how individuals or organizations communicate with each other through the internet. It happens via email, live chat, online forms, comments on websites, VoIP, instant messaging, social media sites, forums, and through other channels.
Mistakes in online communication
Online communication is a big part of our lives, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it sometimes causes confusion. Body language and nonverbal signals are replaced by emoticons and gifs. And what about when someone is not using emoticons? They have to be angry, right? It all makes it easy to jump into the trap of “what do they mean.”
The same happens the other way around. We’re often not aware of how our own words are misinterpreted. We fill in the missing information with our imagination and look for clues like smiley faces to tell us what mood the author is in. Sometimes, we can get lost in our interpretations.
Are you screaming at me?
Some time ago, I wrote an email to a company and asked about the price of their service. They said, “The price for this is $200.” To make sure the total was $200, I asked, “$200 for everything?” And all I got was the answer, “YES.”
You can imagine my first thought. And the second. Did this lady just scream at me? Did I give her a reason to do so? These thoughts made me feel bad about the whole experience. I wanted to write back, but I didn’t. The service was unpleasant. Maybe I’m too sensitive, or maybe it’s my “customer-centric” focus. Either way, I don’t want to be worried if she will be annoyed with my questions in the future.
Unless you really mean to be shouting, don’t use all caps in your written messages. Even if you’re polite, you can scare some people off.
You’re in a rush, so you don’t use punctuation
In the offline world, you can talk fast without taking a breath because your intonation and body language give hints about what you mean. Online, sentences without punctuation can have a completely different meaning. Let’s look at a basic example that can lead to miscommunication:
You can imagine the confusion when you’re in a hurry and it’s a group conversation. Recipients have to read your message two or three times and assume what you wanted to say. Most likely, they will probably misinterpret it anyway. Don’t do it to other people. Use punctuation.
Where do we talk about what?
Our company has 180 people now, so it’s essential to keep basic rules of communication. For example, where do we talk about new releases, project feedback, and important announcements?
Here’s a situation we faced a while ago. One of our colleagues had good advice about email marketing and posted it on Slack in the #general channel so that everyone could see it. Or at least that’s what she thought. Even though the entire company is on this channel, some might have muted it or some might have gone on vacation. That’s why we agreed that the best place for important messages is email. On Slack, after two days, the message would sink under all kinds of other ones.
Now, when people come back from holidays and check their email, they can see all of the important messages. Setting up the rules within your company, but also within your department, will make your communication much smoother.
Everyone communicates online in a different way
Everybody uses online channels differently. Some people are on Gmail, Slack, and Facebook Messenger all the time. Some snooze their notifications and check them only twice a day.
It depends on the job and your personality. In our department, we agreed that we treat Slack as text messages. It doesn’t mean we have to be online all the time, but when we see a message, we respond. Fair enough.
When it comes to communicating with people outside the company, things are different. Let’s say you write to somebody from another company. You can’t expect them to write back to you the moment they see your message. Give them time. Some people even respond to emails after a few days. Respect that. You don’t want to be too pushy. Set up some rules inside your company. Are you checking Email and Slack after work, or do you completely disconnect?
Emojis are fun and tricky
The use of emojis is a complicated topic. Too many emojis make it hard to treat you professionally. On the other hand, when you don’t use any emojis at all, people feel like you’ve left your smile at home.
There’s also another side of emojis and it’s called sarcasm. Some people add a smile, wink, or even a stuck-out tongue to seem playful or nice. As a result, they sound a little bit ironic.
Let’s take this example:
“Well, John, I know you have a lot of work, but maybe a little less gossip with coworkers and you don’t have to stay at work till the evening ;)” It sounds like, “Stop with excuses and get to work.” Right?
Instead, a boss can say: “Well, John, I know you have a lot of work and it’s great you’re integrating with others, but, I think with a little time management, you can do it! :)”
It suddenly changes the undertone and shows that John has the support of his boss. So, don’t try to soften your message with emojis because people know you’re just being sarcastic, or they perceive you like that, even though you had different intentions. Write wisely!
When you write something, it doesn’t just disappear
With online communication, we need to be careful because we don’t know what feelings and concerns people have while we’re talking with them. For example, if you’re in a rush and respond really fast, you’re straightforward without even noticing. If people don’t know you, they may think you’re giving orders to them or that you’re mad about something.
The average person speaks at least 7,000 words a day, with many speaking much more than that. The truth is, we forget most of them almost as soon as they have left our mouths. Let’s learn from that, and think twice before you send a message. It won’t just disappear. Watch out for irony, avoid posting argumentative responses, and try not to use a negative tone.
Practice online communication rules on popular channels
You’ve read the basic online communication rules. Now, let’s see how you can use this knowledge in practice on the most popular communication channels at work.
1. Email communication
- Say hello, and quickly introduce yourself. Sometimes we get emails like, “Hi! It’s John here! I want to write for your platform!” Well, that’s great, but it would be nice to hear who you are and what makes you stand out from others.
- Don’t write too much. We also get emails that explain how much a person or a company achieved before they even get to the point. What I recommend is to write just a few sentences of introduction and then get to the point.
- Use fonts anyone can read on any device. You don’t want to make your email look bad. It will lower your chances of working together.
- Don’t forget to leave a signature and other contact details. It’s best if you have a mail footer.
2. Slack and chat communication
- Even in your daily communication with your teammates, use punctuation! Without it, the meaning of the sentence can be completely different or not make any sense at all. You don’t want people to wonder what you are trying to say.
- Don’t overuse emojis. They can make it difficult to take you seriously or understand your intentions.
- Think twice before you send it. It’s best to create a full message describing your thoughts and then send it. Avoid sending multiple messages that comprise only one sentence.
- Try to avoid arguing over Slack or live chat. It’s likely your words will be misinterpreted.
3. Social media communication
- Choose your tone of voice and stick to it. Are you using playful and direct language on your website? Don’t be afraid to do the same on social media.
- Don’t argue with customers, and don’t be conceited by saying something like, “We would never do something like this! I’m sure our package got to you because we sent it.” Maybe you’re sure about what you did, but can you be sure of what other employees did? If you can’t, be careful about speaking for them.
- Remember to not angrily respond to customers. Nothing disappears on the internet, and your negative response can quickly become viral and damage your business.
4. Text message communication
- Text messages are one of the best ways to reach customers. They earn higher open rates than email and give customers an instant push notification on their phone. 82% of people say they open every text message they receive.
- Text messages are great for boosting engagement and generating more sales. For the best results, choose the right hours to contact your audience (e.g., if you’re a pizza place, you want to send those texts in the afternoon rather than in the morning).
- Be smart with text communication. Send those texts wisely and not too often in order to not irritate customers.
5. Video conferencing
- Video conferencing has become one of the most popular forms of connecting with others, especially inside companies. It’s used for discussions between teams, coordinating projects, or individual conversations that would require too much typing.
- For this kind of communication, a stable internet connection is a must. You don’t want others to have to wait for you because you had to leave the meeting a few times due to a poor internet connection.
- Some companies agree that the camera doesn’t need to be used during meetings. Whatever the case, follow the lead of the person who initiated the call.
- During big team meetings, it’s best to join with a muted mic so you don’t interrupt a conversation others are already having.
- Be aware of your surroundings. While sometimes you can’t control the noise around you (like construction noise), don’t go to a busy cafe to have a serious business call. Find somewhere calm and quiet to conduct that call.
6. Online forums
- Online forums are a great place for open discussions (Quora, Reddit, etc.). You can find out what problems people are facing and how they solve them. It’s also a great place to include your brand in a conversation.
- Before posting, understand the expectations and ground rules for the forum. Find out how often to post, what kind of content to include, and what the best way to respond to others is.
- Participate in discussions. It’s not enough to respond with one sentence and leave a link to your website. If you want to be trustworthy, read others’ comments before posting, and connect your answer with their responses. It’s about being real.
Make your online communication smooth
Written words can be easily misinterpreted. We fill in the blanks with our imagination and look for clues like smiley face emojis to tell us what mood the author is in. Since online communication is here to stay, we should strive to be better at it.
We can’t be exactly sure how we’re received. So, let’s try to be more thoughtful of others and be clear with our own messages. Give people the benefit of the doubt, and if you’re not sure of something, just ask them. Ask them what they mean, and ask them if everything is OK. Understand that all people have different ways of formulating their thoughts.
What do you think? Do you sometimes have trouble understanding people online? Is it easy to get into an argument because you twist the meaning of other people’s words? Let's connect!