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Let’s Meet Off-Line

Technology Facilitates But Rarely Improves Communication.

By Thomas J. Roach

Time was when everyone attending a meeting sat in the same room. Then technology made it possible to put people on speakerphones if they were unable to attend in person. Today in many businesses, particularly in corporate offices, most if not all meetings and their participants are on-line.

Adding speakerphones to meetings was psychologically awkward and physically problematic at first; then as the technology improved it was novel and fun. Now, meeting on-line is part of the workday for many of us. It is the exception when someone has to say, “let’s talk about this off-line.” It may be because two people got carried away with a side topic that doesn’t interest the rest of the group, or it may be because the issue is too complicated to be discussed over the phone.

In Person
I gave a short seminar recently and made the point that in spite of all the new technology we are still human beings and we communicate much better in person than we do digitally and in groups. One of the attendees, a vice president in charge of quality, told me a week later that she thought about what I said, and when time permitted she tried making phone calls to individuals instead of conferencing and sending emails. She said she was amazed at how much more she accomplished with the live one-on-one communication even though it was still over the phone.

Technology facilitates communication, and in many ways it streamlines and economizes communication, but it rarely improves communication. Most successful sales people understand this. They use digital communication to reach a broad potential client public, and then if there is a response they do everything they can to make a personal contact.

There is a message effectiveness ratio that applies universally. The greater the p factor the smaller e factor; the more people (p) your message reaches, the less effective (e) it will be. We are all unique. In order for a message to be appealing to a large audience it has to address only those characteristics and preferences that are shared by the entire audience. The broader the audience, the smaller the pool of salient information. On the other hand, a message for a small group can appeal to the group’s unique interests, and a message to an individual can target that person’s specific interests and needs.

Conversely, a message tailored for the individual is of less use to the group or the public at large.

Leadership and sales tactics come and go like fads, but one underlying principle has timeless value: know and adjust to your audience. One-on-one we can discern curiosity, resentment, amusement, fear, disinterest, and a hundred other possible clues that if we respond to them can make the difference between success and failure.

Embrace Opportunities
We need to embrace the new opportunities presented by communication technology. It won’t be long before the conference call is able to link mobile phones with computer based visual and voice systems like Skype, and that will be a welcome improvement. Who knows, at some point we may all be working from our homes, even operating equipment remotely.

But no matter what happens with technology, p is always inversely proportional to e. Good managers will be mindful of the balance: use the technology when quantity, the broadcasting of a message, is the primary objective, and meet one-on-one when the quality of the discussion is most important.

Having trouble with my formula? Let’s meet off-line.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..