There is nothing that will make the effects of a vacation or long weekend disappear faster than the realization that we have thirty-two voice mails or hundreds of e-mail messages to deal with. The electronic networks that were supposed to make our lives easier and more efficient have become sticky spiderwebs of complexities that attract and trap time and effort.
Because of the mobility of many families, electronic media have become more and more important in communicating with one another. With children who are away at college, spouses and partners who are doing business in another part of the world, parents who have retired and moved, and siblings and friends who live far away, our personal lives are also filled with opportunities to influence electronically.
Like it or not, we live in a world in which we must communicate with and influence people whom we seldom see. Realistically, much of our communication, and thus much of our influencing, will take place through these channels. We might as well learn to do it in the most effective way we can.
Electronic influence has advantages and disadvantages related to the immediacy of the medium. This can be positive when it is important to find support or make team decisions quickly. Both voice mail and e-mail differ from real-time, instant communication (such as a face-to-face discussion) in that there is a record left that can be shared with others for whom the message was not intended.
Influencing electronically is challenging and should probably not be your first choice for important opportunities if other means are at hand. In some organizations, people who sit in adjacent offices or cubicles will send e-mails in preference to speaking directly, especially about difficult issues. Unfortunately, the perceived importance, and thus the impact of a message, is often directly related to the effort and risk the sender has put forth.
Some situations in which e-mail, or even voice mail, is not a good means of communicating or influencing include:
In all of these cases and others, it is best if you can arrange a faceto-face meeting or, if that is not possible, a telephone meeting or a video or computer real-time conference.
A common problem with e-mail, in particular, is that people tend to treat it as if it were a conversation and do not plan or screen their remarks. Once a message has been sent, it is difficult to unsend it. And you don't know how many other people have had an opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversation.
E-mail and voice mail in general follow the same principles of influence as do face-to-face influence opportunities. The behaviors are the same, although you don't have the reinforcement of voice tone (with e-mail), facial expressions, or gestures to clarify the meaning of your words. Over time, you should balance expressive and receptive influence; you can often include both types of behavior in the same message. In fact, it is often a good idea to err on the side of receptive behavior, since you have fewer clues as to how the other person is reacting than you do in face-to-face interactions.
Learning how to use these media in conscious and productive ways can greatly expand your sphere of influence. While many people today communicate continually through electronic means, few have developed the skills to use these influence opportunities well.
Failing to do so can lead not only to missed opportunities, but also to unprecedented and costly misunderstandings and conflicts.
Influence messages require a response so that you know whether you are getting closer to or further from your goal. Among the large number of communications most business people receive daily, only a few will earn a thoughtful response. Given limitations of time and energy, we tend to select the ones that look most important or interesting.
These will probably include:
We are unlikely to respond quickly or productively to messages when we perceive that our responses will create problems or more work for us, provide no benefits, or have no impact on anything we care about.
Knowing this, it is possible to design messages so they are more likely to attract the recipient's attention. First, the recipient must be interested enough to open the message rather than ignore it. Next, he or she must read and respond to it. The subject line of your message should influence the recipient to open and read it, if your name alone won't do it (and it probably won't unless you are the person's boss, best friend, or current romantic interest). A subject line that reads, "I need your inspirations about a topic for the meeting," for example, will probably get a better hearing than, "Why haven't I heard from you?" Electronic whining is still whining.
Let the other person know up-front, in the first line or two, what you need and why he or she would benefit from responding to your message. For example, "Tell me where you think we should hold our next meeting. I want to make sure you don't have to travel as far as you did last month. I need to book the meeting by Friday." In this case, the response needed is clear, the benefits are obvious, and the deadline is specific. If it is necessary to send a long message electronically, breaking the message into shorter segments through the use of bullets or numbered lists can help.
Anything you can do to make it easy to respond by phone or return e-mail, such as offering options A, B, or C, will make it easier and thus more likely that you will receive a response. When you leave a message on voice mail, it may be helpful to brief (and it should be very brief!) the person on the issue, then say that there is no need to call back unless a discussion is needed. Say that, otherwise, you will assume the other person accepts or supports the idea or will attend the meeting or commit to the responsibility. This works best with relatively simple and non-controversial messages; it can save time and is useful in uncovering areas of disagreement of which you were not aware.
As in any other form of influencing, creating defensiveness is to be avoided at all costs. Using words that are accusatory or inflammatory will create a fight-or-flight reaction, just as it would in real time. Either you will not hear back from the person, or you will hear something you would rather not have heard. In either case, no influence will occur.
Use words that are nonjudgmental, businesslike, and that assume that the other will respond productively. It also helps to acknowledge your understanding that it will require some time and effort on the other's part, but avoid obsequiousness.
A good example: "I know you are on a tight deadline. Let me know a good time to get ten minutes with you to review the report." A bad example: "I suppose you'll be too busy to meet with me again."
All of us have heard stories of e-mail disasters, such as the man who sent his girlfriend a very explicit love letter and accidentally copied it to everyone in the company. Most e-mail disasters, however, occur because we "write out loud" and then press the "send" button without thinking about how the other might react, or whether this message will help achieve an influence goal.
The one certain way to prevent such occurrences is to leave some time between composing an important e-mail message - one that is intended to influence - and sending it. This is almost an unnatural act, given the instantaneous nature of most e-mail communication, but it has many benefits.
A good exercise is to write the message as a first draft, then set it aside for a while. (Even a few minutes can help.) Reread it and ask yourself the following questions:
Err on the pessimistic side of things; it is amazing what people can read into messages if they are having a particularly paranoid sort of day. Once you have identified all possible misunderstandings (or, for that matter, correct understandings that won't help you reach your goal - yes, you really do think the marketing VP is a yo-yo, but you have to do business with him!), you will want to rewrite the message. Send a really important influence message only when you have reviewed it at least twice (and sometimes it is good to have someone else whom you trust look at it as well).
Many forms of messaging are becoming more ubiquitous and insistent. Text messaging is not an especially useful influence medium, as it tends to be used primarily for brief and simple communications - at least as of this writing and while it is dependent on thumb dex-terity. It can be useful, however, to point the recipient toward an important message that you send in another way. (Pls chk e-mail 2 u.) Instant messaging, however, creates the opportunity for a conversation in real time and can certainly be used to influence others.
Taking time to review your response before sending, as you would with e-mail, only faster, is the key to effective IM influence.
As Internet telephony becomes more ubiquitous and as we stay connected to our mobile phones and communications devices continually, we will be living in a world where influence can happen with anyone, anywhere, at any time. (For the introverts among us, this may not be good news.)