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Relationships Matter: Put Down the iPad and Pick Up the Phone


  • Relationships are at the heart of communications. They’re essential.
  • The quality of digital communication has been proven to be lower than that of in-person communication.
  • Building relationships through personal interaction is more likely to help you convey your message and achieve a desired outcome.

A few summers back, my then-teenaged son made the case for a summer job away from home. He showed great judgment in heading to Nantucket. What’s not to like there? He sold t-shirts to tourists.

He and his friends snagged a cheap sublet off the Internet, but needed another roommate to cover the rent. They found the perfect guy online. “He’s gonna be great,” one of them said. “We like a lot of the same music. It’ll be fine.”

“What makes you feel so sure?” I asked.

“I just know. He’s like us.”

“Well, have you talked with him? Do you know anything about him?”

“Yeah, we’ve been talking on Facebook. It’s cool.”

Weeks later, I heard that the perfect roommate was a “complete disaster!” “We had to kick him out. Too many drugs, crazy late hours, broke stuff, weird dude,” my son complained. “This guy was out of control!”

I find myself asking the very same “I told you so” questions at work: Do you know this person? What does your intuition tell you? Do you think you have a connection? Why or why not?

It seems to me that in our embrace of the digital world, we professional communicators run the risk of teen-age outcomes: occasional flat-out mistakes, but much more frequently, lost opportunities. We need less email and more face-to-face time. Less stark, more nuanced. Less quick and impersonal, and more authentic.

This dynamic plays out in some of the most challenging work we do – placing feature stories, being a steady information source for journalists or policymakers, earning the trust of donors. These outcomes are all hard to achieve, but they’re not done through email, voice messaging, MailChimp blasts, links or attachments or other quick-hit, impersonal or purely informational salvos. This is one case where what held true a generation ago is still true today: relationships matter, and because they are meaningful, they trump all other forms of communication.

Over 90 per cent of communication is driven by body language and tone of voice, as opposed to the content of the message itself.

By “relationship,” I’m not referring to an interaction that must rise to the level of BFFs, or even friendship. But a genuine human connection must meet the bar of authenticity, taking the honest measure of the other person. Getting a sense of body language. This need not take vast amounts of time, but it does take some time, as opposed to a touch or click. And, when direct personal contact isn’t feasible because of the miles that separate us, we ought to do the best we can with Skype or thoughtful phone conversations. In any case, we need more depth than a Gchat allows.

It’s worth it. There’s the time I landed a feature piece in the Chicago Tribune because I spent a half hour with an editor instead of emailing her. There’s the uber-talented intern I hired because she impressed me in the 15 minutes we had together after I guest-lectured in her class. And the dinner conversation with the head of a global research center who, before we parted, urged me to visit his operation to offer advice.

There’s even some science behind this. Two samples: researchers at the University of Essex in England found that when two people are placed in a room and communicate face-to-face, the mere presence of an unused cell phone nearby caused the participants to report a decrease in the quality of the relationship. Also, multiple studies carried out at UCLA validate what we intuitively know: over 90 per cent of communication is driven by body language and tone of voice, as opposed to the content of the message itself.

Successfully promoting ideas and seeing them actually come to pass generally doesn’t happen by way of emails or voice messages. We need a greater sense of each other’s humanity – even a glimpse – in today’s workaday world where the comfort zone tilts toward technology.

A few years ago, a client needed help running a workshop.  It was a one-off, straightforward request; we could have prepped in a few emails. Maybe a phone call. Instead, we met for an hour to plan the session. He made an impression on me, and left me with a good gut feeling. I liked him, and the workshop was well-received. Soon after, I called him on a lark to ask whether he was interested in being fixed up, because someone I knew just “felt” like a fit for him. How did I know? I just knew.

My client and his fix-up celebrated their first wedding anniversary in July.

Now, that’s a communications outcome!

Andy Burness is the founder and president of Burness Communicationsa mission-driven global communications firm supporting nonprofits and the people they serve. Before starting his firm, he was liaison with the public and primary spokesperson for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @AndyBurness1


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