There are two types of communication that we use to share information within our team. These are written communication and verbal communication.
When is it better to use one over the other?
In other words, when should we write instead of talk?
We tend to believe that speaking is more effective when we are trying to share information. Verbal communication has quicker results and it allows us to have more personal contact with whom we are speaking.
Also, you don’t have to worry too much about grammar when you use verbal communication. If you make a grammar mistake in your speech, nobody really cares.
Although verbal communication seems the way to go in many situations, it can cause many problems in the long run.
Problems arise when we use verbal communication to make promises, give instructions or share information.
If we make promises or give instructions verbally, we have no way to prove that these promises and instructions were indeed given.
Let’s suppose your manager asks you to do something simply by using verbal communication. Your manager gave you precise instructions as to how you should perform the job and she even advised you about the steps you need to take should you encounter any problems.
However, you can’t just memorize all this information. There’s too much of it. It may seem clear when you’re listening to your manager, but it can soon fade away or become muddled in your mind.
You perhaps should have written all the instructions down carefully on a piece of paper in order not to forget anything.
That way, you can follow all the specified steps, do everything correctly, just how you were asked to and finish your task on time.
Without clear, written instructions, when you let your manager know you have finished, she may review it and tell you that you didn’t do it the way she told you to.
How can you prove you actually did do just what she asked of you?
Obviously, you can discuss it with her and you can show her your piece of paper with the instructions of her requirements that you noted down.
But, even if you did complete the task to her exact instructions – you cannot prove it. These are your notes, not theirs.
However, things would probably be rather different if you had asked your manager to send you an email with all the instructions.
You would then have written evidence of exactly what had been asked of you. You could then compare it with the completed task and this would prove you had done everything that they had asked you to do.
Verbal communication gives us a feeling of productivity and makes us think that we are making the most of our time.
It gives us the perception that information and knowledge is spread effectively across the team.
But the reality is, that this knowledge gets lost in the air, when we could have saved it in some sort of document.
Meetings are the perfect example of wasting time when using verbal communication. There’s no point in having a meeting if a document is not created that reflects the intention, results or action items from that meeting.
Think about the last meeting you had. Someone was probably giving some explanations, instructions or answers; and at the time, everyone clearly understood what was being said.
But sometime after this meeting, it is often difficult to recall all the information that was shared verbally.
It would have been better to publish some kind of document and give people the opportunity to write questions and opinions on it.
There is also a problem when we are sharing knowledge or exchanging information without recording it in some way. If we use verbal communication, all this information is lost.
To give an example, let’s suppose you are working with your team and suddenly you find yourself with many questions about a particular piece of code you don’t understand.
What's the first thing you do to solve this problem?
Ask a question, of course.
So, you go ahead and approach a teammate and ask your questions. Then, your teammate happily answers you.
So now you can happily resolve your problem.
But then, a year later, several other teammates ask the same questions you asked about the same piece of code and all of them received their answers.
The problem here, is that although many people received answers about this piece of code – the knowledge about this code is still with just one person.
Unless someone else has written down and saved this information.
This problem could be solved by making people interact solely using Q&A tools and prohibit verbal communication.
This of course sounds pretty difficult to achieve.
Remote teams offer an advantage regarding this problem. Although people in remote teams could certainly interact using a voice chat tool, there is a greater chance that information and knowledge will be preserved in a bug tracker or documentation tool.
Verbal communication is an excellent way to make personal contact and give inspiration in meetings, but fails when it comes to knowledge sharing and preservation.
Written communication, on the other hand, allows us to provide information in a more structured way and gives us the opportunity to save this information for further analysis and knowledge sharing.