Pick Up the Phone: When Email Just Doesn’t Work

We’ve all had this experience: we’ve received an email that we’re confused by or don’t know how to respond to. Maybe it’s too complex to respond to easily or maybe the tone was unpleasant. 

Usually, when we’re speaking to people, in-person or even on the phone, we have the opportunity to read body language, hear the tone in their voice, answer questions in real time… all the things that an email can’t do.

And what happens when the email is too complex, the tone is prickly, or we have too many questions to offer a response?  We don’t respond.  Well, we say that we’ll come back to it later but how often does that happen? 

In my years of working with organizations, I’ve developed a handful of guidelines for deciding when to use email, when to make a call, and when face-to-face communication is best. 


Use Email When:

  • Following up? Try email. Email is a great way to document a previous conversation. Remember, just because you heard something during a conversation or meeting, doesn’t mean everyone else had the same interpretation of what was said. 
  • Reminders? Email can work.  If your project is coming up on a deadline, using email can be efficient, particularly with a well-chosen subject line (ie: Status? Rough Draft Due Monday, Oct 1). I like to include the original email message that outlines the previous agreements to recap the project, deliverables, and agreements among stakeholders.
  • Need to get the same, consistent message out to a broad, large number of people? Email is likely a good choice. Email can be a great broadcast medium. However, don’t discount using multiple media types to accompany the email message if the content is important. Think about complimenting your broadcast email message with a group conference call, webinar or videocast.


When to Call?

  • Back-and-forthing in Email? It’s time to pick up the phone. If you’re going back and forth with someone in email about details, or if your email has devolved into a debate, it might be time to pick up the phone and just have a five-minute phone call.
  • Got a Mea Culpa? At least call. An apology can come across as more heartfelt and more meaningful when you apologize verbally vs in a dashed-off email.  If you’re worried about how to say it, then make notes before calling.
  • Lots of Details?  If you have a lot of details or confusing information, consider a conversation, followed up by an email.
  • Getting Personal? While you might use an email to convey the basics (ie: I need to take a sick day), you might want to pick up the phone and call to explain any personal details.
  • Trying to sell an idea? Have a meeting or call so everyone can discuss and get things addressed in a timely manner.


When is Face-to-Face best?

  • To help build relationships and make impressions. While it’s not a hard and fast rule, sometimes it’s nice to have an in-person meeting to help establish or to build a relationship with a client or partner.
  • Going off the record? An in-person conversation allows you to share information without creating a paper trail.
  • Having a War of Words? Meet.  If your email has devolved into disagreements, you might want to “put a pin in it,” and take the time to have an in-person meeting before feelings are hurt and the conflict erodes productivity.


Remember – we have different forms of communication for a reason. Different media are better choices for different situations.  Pick your media wisely to suit the situation and audience.


Want to learn more about being a more effective communicator? Check out our books (Amazon) and courses.



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