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Communicating to influence in the digital age

After flinging text messages back and forth with a client a few weeks ago, I realized we weren’t communicating what we needed to. So I picked up the phone and called him. My client, a member of Generation X, was shocked I used this old technology for the task at hand.

This difference in communication preference made me think of the many complaints I hear from Baby Boomer clients who are frustrated with the communication style of younger people who are Gen X or Millennials. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with my son when he was networking after graduating from college. I suggested he make a follow-up call to someone he had been exchanging information with on email.

“You don’t get it, Dad,” he replied, “we IM, we don’t use the phone.” And that was a decade ago.

While every generation in recorded history has had complaints about successive generations, digital communications bring new dimensions to the communications gaps between age groups today. The technology itself is second nature to members of younger generations while being totally foreign to many members of older generations. It’s as if we’re speaking different languages.

And, unlike conversation, texting and the use of social networking sites send information without the benefit of tailoring the message using non-verbal and voice intonation cues from the person being communicated to, a critical component of effective interpersonal interactions. Without this feedback, we have to rely on what we know of the recipient of our communication, what that person’s expectations are and what their preferred communication style is in advance. Many Boomers, for example, consider it rude not to respond to an email, yet many Millennials think it is totally unnecessary.

Effective electronic communications starts with being clear about the goal of your communication. Do you want to just exchange information or influence? Texts and tweets are extremely efficient (unless misinterpreted) but are simply ways of passing on information. They rarely persuade the recipient and aren’t the best tools to use if you need to influence someone to make a decision.

Next is tailoring your message and the medium to convey that message to your audience. While every age cohort is made up of individuals, some stereotypes tend to apply. “Traditionalists” are formal yet personal and expect communications to flow through proper channels. Boomers are somewhat formal and prefer a mix of electronic and face-to-face communications. Gen Xers tend to be casual, direct, electronic and more skeptical,  while Millennials are fast, casual, direct and high tech.

Finally, I think our communications have gotten so fast and curt we almost expect rudeness and snarkiness to be part of the exchange. This creates an opportunity to differentiate your communications, and your business, through courtesy. It’s such a lost art that the person who is polite and considers the preferences of the recipient stands out, regardless of whether you’re texting, tweeting, emailing or actually talking with someone.