The Communication Ladder

“…in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.” 1

The medium we select to say things is often as important as what we say with it.  Our choices reflect deeper and can have a much more profound impact than we might at first consider.  Take a line of poetry from a hidden journal and spray paint it around the city streets and it transforms from a private musing to a powerful statement.  Offer platitudes by text or on social media and it becomes background noise at best, insulting at worse.

There are appropriate times to use various modes of communication so that the message will carry the greatest impact.  And it is the message that is important.  Words have power and the way they are presented carries undertones that may not be apparent when the message is being sent.

Consider the following:

  • There is a specific hierarchy that exists between the various forms of communication.
  • When replying to a message it is only appropriate to move one step up or down when selecting your medium.
  • The higher up the ladder, the more powerful the communication.

The Hierarchy

Face to Face (F2F) > Phone> Email > Text > Social Media 

The list is presented with an eye towards business operations, so other various forms of communication have been left out.  Morse code is still used in certain industries for example, but as it requires specialized knowledge it doesn’t make the cut.  Conversely, more esoteric forms of communication such as visual art or photography have also been excluded due to their openness to interpretation.

The left side of the list is the strongest forms of communication, able to make the greatest individual impact.  Strength here is based on ability to connect with people on a deep level.  The right side of the list carries the potential for greater reach but has a reduced ability to persuade as it lacks additional tools such as body language.

Face to Face

The most powerful form of communication in the hierarchy is done in person.  In this case the whole range of communication tools is available and in use:

  • Eye contact
  • Tone of voice
  • Body language
  • Kinesthetics
  • Inflection

A personal meeting builds trust and creates value.  It means that the person cares enough to make themselves available and  that the thing being discussed is the top priority.  It also reduces the potential for Miscommunication, provided that both parties communicate effectively.


The next step down the ladder is vocal communications.  These days we have the advantage of cheap calls to anywhere in the world.  I’m guessing that your cellphone is within range, just waiting for you to reach out and touch someone.

A great second option when time or distance is an issue phone calls are still a very powerful way to connect with people, as anyone who has been in a long distance relationship can attest to.


Rounding out the top three form of effective business communication is email.  Predating the internet, email has been around in the form we know it since 1972, and in a simpler format as early as 1965.  2  It is now used ubiquitously in most every industry worldwide.

Email is the defacto standard in business these days for a number of reasons:

  • Traceability
  • Record keeping
  • Ability to attach additional files
  • Speed
  • Collaboration

The transition from voice to written word however carries some risks as well.  While great authors have the ability to influence emotions through their writing, the rest of us likely do not.  Miscommunication can be easily introduced, especially as relates to emotions.  The receiver can misread the tone of the message which creates the seeds for future conflict.

With today’s “always on” culture it is also easy to quickly send and respond to emails form your phone.  These are typically not written with the same care as you would take on a computer so are more prone towards errors.  If you are going to commit something to writing you need to take the time to ensure it is written well.


Barely appropriate in a (legal) business context I include these here as it is slowly creeping in to use, due to the every prevalent smartphones.  The trouble with texting is that it is a highly informal method of communication, yet still leaves a digital trail.  Messages are easily misconstrued, especially when texting people you don’t know very well.  What constitutes a funny inside joke between mates might be highly offensive to somebody else, as the medium lacks certain context.

For business communication I recommend sticking to the top three and leaving out the rest.

Social Media

The single most lazy form of communication in the world these days is a ‘thumbs-up’ on somebodies wall.  Be it a birthday, announcement, or support of a cause, this type of “slacktivism” is more about the person leaving the comment than it is about the message.

90% of young people and 65% of adults are on social media as of the end of 2015. 3  All businesses have a Social Media strategy and the claim is that nobody can survive without one.  We all have to manage our online profiles and we are all easy to find.

The trouble is that while all this time is spent “connecting” there is not a lot of time spent actually working on something that provides value.  Recruiters from around the world can send me job offers on a daily basis not one of them really knows anything about me.  If they did they would have my phone number.

I have been, and continue to be, heavily invested in Social Media.  It is a great way to connect with people, but it is only the first rung on the ladder towards a meaningful relationship.  Use it to get your foot in the door but if you stop here then you are selling yourself, and the other person, short.

Climbing the Ladder or Staying Put

The most effective way to follow up communications is to stay within a rung on the ladder.

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of industry events over the past few years.  During these you meet a large number of people and collect hundreds of business cards.  Then a week or two later the emails start rolling in, consisting mostly of a form letter with my name attached at the top.

These all get deleted.

The reason this doesn’t work is that they have skipped a step on the ladder.  My phone number is also on my business card.  If there was a real connection made to be capitalized on then a phone call would have been the next appropriate step.  This shows commitment and confidence.

The Electronic Exception

The only time it is appropriate to skip steps is when you have built a relationship with somebody entirely online.  With this the standard it creates a different dynamic.  So if by chance or design you finally meet the person F2F it is totally acceptable to go directly back to your previous form of online communication afterwards.

An example of this is the few great online relationships I have developed with people around the world through my DP Operators Facebook group.  Some real relationships have developed here and occasionally I get the chance to meet someone in person.   But following that meet we will revert back to messaging on Facebook, as this is the communication standard on which our relationship is built.

The same goes for somebody that you know solely through email, say a purchaser for one of your vendors.  If you happen to meet that person at a BBQ then don’t feel like you need to call them up the next time you want to place an order.

The Ladder to Success

People like other people better when they have met in person.  And a follow up conversation on the phone does wonders for cementing that relationship.

Email is the most powerful business tool on the planet, enabling us to accomplish amazing things.  Yet it can lack the interpersonal connection that drives us to work with that person again.

Social media’s reach is mind boggling, with a post gone viral reaching millions of viewers.  But while it feels personal it really only skims the surface of what a strong relationship should be.

If your goal is to build a strong, lasting relationship then invest your time closer to the top of the ladder as often as possible.  Don’t stop ‘liking’ posts or re-tweeting messages, but don’t forget to call people on the phone from time to time either.  And always take the F2F option when available.  This is where the biggest results happen.


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Show 3 footnotes

  1. Marshall McCluhan, Understanding Media; The Extensions of Man, (1964)

3 thoughts on “The Communication Ladder

  1. Very good as usual; my comment is just a potential addition which is linked to the phone. Video calls and conference call are a real option with modern telecommunications. I would place video call at a higher subdivision of phone calls; higher because there is a greater degree of contact. There is potentially for an argument they are a separate category as there is now visual contact as well as verbal and greater attention to detail is required, such as location the call is taken in, attire and personal hygiene.

  2. Great point Colin. I find that conference calls are always a little awkward as there is no indication of who is going to speak next. But as you say, a video call does require greater attention to detail. The reason I left it out was that it is typically only used in more specialized circumstances; project collaboration or the like.

  3. Yes conference calls can be a real disaster, the best I saw had a moderator a Rota for routine comments and then a final AOB

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