Which to Use and When
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While the descriptions above seem to favor oral over written communication in terms of immediate benefits, in actuality, most of the work done in the professional world is done through written communication. Indeed, according to the most recent research on Texts and E-Mails vs. Oral Communication at Work, employees more often prefer text or email at work over phone or face-to-face interactions as written communication tends to be “fast, simple, and efficient” (see "Texts and E-Mails vs. Oral communication at Work: Which is Best?" on the SHRM website by Alison E. Curwen, April 21, 2017). It also has the added benefit of leaving a digital record of communications that have taken place and work that’s getting done, so that it can be referred back to and built upon often throughout the business process.

So, if there are so many benefits to face-to-face communication, yet written communication is so widely preferred, when should you be using which?

While there are no hard and fast rules, there are a few things that you should consider when deciding which format to communicate in.

Topic of Conversation

Is the communication about a personal or sensitive topic (such as problems at home or with a coworker)? Would the environment in which the sensitive message was received impact the desired outcome? Do you care if there is a permanent paper trail detailing your problem (one that could be shared without your consent)?

These are some simple questions that you should consider before making a decision on the method of communication that you should use. If the topic is business related and not tied to a particularly sensitive situation, written communication would likely be your company’s preferred method of communication. If, however, the situation happens to be sensitive or personal, oral communication would likely be the better way to go.


Is the communication that you need to send urgent? Does it require almost immediate feedback (in other words, a client or customer needs something resolved as soon as possible)?

If you answer “yes” to either of these questions, there is a good chance that oral communication might be the first line of communication you should choose.

As discussed above, one of the drawbacks of written communication is its unpredictable feedback timeline. You could send a message out in the morning and waste several hours of the day waiting on a reply that you could have gotten in 30 seconds had you taken the opportunity to call or visit in person.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for written communication in urgent situations. Indeed, most businesses would like a concrete written record of urgent issues happening within the company. Most email accounts even provide “urgent” settings you can click on to highlight the email's importance to impacted parties. However, this does not lessen the benefit of an oral or face-to-face meeting preceding a written communication just to get the ball rolling.


Is the communication you need to have a routine one? Is it one the receiver has seen a version of before (in other words, is a common one in that particular professional community)?

If you answer “yes” to these questions, then written communication would likely be preferred. Unless the message is unfamiliar and might be misinterpreted without more immediate context (as mentioned above), then communicating about it orally will likely not be necessary.


Who is the communication intended for? Is it for a single person, a group of people, your boss, the executive board of your company?

Whatever your answer to these questions, never forget that your audience should not only shape your message but also shape how that message is communicated.

If the communication is intended for your boss, and your boss is on his email all the time and prefers that method of communication only, you will definitely want to honor that request. If the communication is intended for some field employees at your company that you know are hardly ever in the office or on their email, but respond to text messages very swiftly, obviously you should consider written communication (particularly via text message) as your primary means of communication.

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