7 2.3: Selecting Appropriate Channels

Learning Objectives

target icon4. Distinguish between communication channels to determine which is most appropriate for particular situations.
5.  Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.
i. Select appropriate channels for delivering messages

Throughout this chapter we’ve been considering messages sent via email because it is the most common channel for written business messages. However, many professionals make the mistake of sending an email when another channel (e.g., a verbal rather than a written one) would be more appropriate for the situation and the audience. If you had to deal with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, for instance, the right thing to do is discuss it in person with all involved because conflict resolution requires social intelligence informed by all the verbal and nonverbal information you can gather from them. You could follow up with an email summarizing a remedial action plan reached through constructive dialogue, but you would never deal with the situation by email alone.

Woman sitting at a table sending a text message on a mobile phoneAddressing sensitive situations exclusively by email (or, even worse, text message) tends only to intensify a conflict. Email or messaging can’t possibly address the emotional complexity of a toxic situation and usually results in costly delays given the time lag between responses. Tensions also tend to escalate when people have the time to read too much into emails and text or instant messages about sensitive topics, misinterpret their tone, and write angry or passive-aggressive ones in return. Many people tend to lack filters when writing electronically in a state of heightened emotion because they feel relatively free to express the internal monologue that they would otherwise restrain if in the physical company of the person they’re writing to. Recognizing that email is only one channel on a spectrum of other options, and that others would be more efficient in certain situations, can save plenty of hassle from knee-jerk reliance on one favoured or comfortable channel.

Between traditional and rapid electronic media, we have more choice for communication channels than ever in human history. Each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages that make it appropriate or inappropriate for specific situations. Knowing those pros and cons, summarized in Table 2.3 below for a dozen of the most common verbal and written channels available, is necessary for being an effective communicator in the modern workplace. Choosing channels wisely can mean the difference between a message that is received and understood as intended (the goal of communication), and one that is lost in the noise or misunderstood in costly ways.

Table 2.3: The Spectrum of Common Workplace Communication Channels

Channel: In-person conversation and group meeting

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • The most information-rich channel combining words and nonverbal messages
  • Dialogue facilitates immediate back-and-forth exchange of ideas
  • Maintains the human element lacking in most other channels
  • Additional participants can join for group discussion
  • Requires that speakers travel to be physically in the same space together
  • Some people are poor listeners and some are poor speakers
  • Impermanent unless recording equipment is used
  • Audience must be present and attentive rather than distracted by their mobile technology or multitasking
  • Use for genuine dialogue rather than monologue or shallow, superficial exchanges
  • A dynamic speaking ability is required to engage audiences
  • Quickly exchange ideas with people close by
  • Visually communicate to complement your words
  • Add the human element in discussing sensitive or confidential topics that need to be worked out through dialogue

Channel: Email

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Delivers messages instantly anywhere in the world to anyone with an internet connection and email address you have
  • Sends to one or many people at once, including secondary audiences CC’d or BCC’d
  • Allows you to attach documents up to several megabytes in size or links to any internet webpages
  • Allows for a back-and-forth thread on the topic in the subject line
  • Archives written correspondence for review even decades later
  • Can be done on any mobile device with an internet connection
  • Is free (beyond your subscription fees to an internet or phone provider)
  • Is somewhat permanent in that emails exist somewhere on a server even if deleted by both sender and receiver
  • Gives the illusion of privacy: your messages can be forwarded to anyone, monitored by your company or an outside security agency, retrieved with a warrant, or hacked even if both you and receiver delete them
  • Can be slow when used for back-and-forth dialogue
  • Tone may be misread (e.g., jokes misunderstood) due to the absence of nonverbal cues
  • May be sent automatically to the recipient’s spam folder or otherwise overlooked or deleted without being read given the volume of emails some people get in a day
  • Subject to errors such as hitting “send” prematurely or replying to all when only the sender should be replied to
  • Subject to limits on document attachment size
  • Subject to spam (unsolicited emails)
  • Regretted emails can’t be taken back or edited
  • Requires a working internet connection on a computing device, which isn’t available everywhere in the world
  • Reply within 24 hours, or sooner if company policy requires it
  • Follow conventions for writing a clear subject line; salutation; message opening, body, and closing; closing salutation, and e-signature
  • Netiquette: be as kind as you should be in person; don’t write emails angrily
  • Edit to ensure coverage of the subject indicated in the subject line with no more or less information than the recipient needs to do their job
  • Proofread to ensure correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling because errors compromise your credibility
  • Avoid confusion due to vagueness that requires that the recipient respond asking for clarification
  • Quickly deliver a message that doesn’t need an immediate response
  • Send a message and receive a response in writing as evidence for future review (lay down a paper trail)
  • Use when confidentiality isn’t necessary
  • Send electronic documents as attachments
  • Send the same message to several people at once, including perhaps people whose email address you need to hide from the others (using BCC) to respect their confidentiality

Channel: Instant/Text message

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Enables the rapid exchange of concise written messages
  • Can be done quietly so as to not be overheard
  • Inexpensive
  • Autocomplete feature helps achieve efficiencies in typing speed and spelling
  • Nonverbal characters such as emojis can clarify tone
  • Plenty of instant message applications are available, such as Facebook Messenger, Google Talk, WhatsApp, and SnapChat
  • Often used to avoid human contact when telephone or in-person communication is available and more appropriate
  • Encourages informality with lazy abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms
  • Even with autocomplete, typing with thumbs alone can be slower than using 10 fingers on a desktop or laptop computer
  • Concise text alone can be misinterpreted for tone when used to summarize complex ideas
  • Other nonverbals such as emojis help clarify tone, but also undermine credibility if used in professional situations
  • Give the illusion of privacy: texts exist on servers and can be retrieved even if deleted by both sender and receiver
  • Mobility and portability of texting devices tempt users with poor impulse control to text dangerously while walking or driving, or rudely in front of people talking to them
  • Respond immediately or as soon as possible, since the choice to text or IM is usually for rapid exchange of information
  • Be patient if the recipient doesn’t respond immediately; they may be busy with real-life tasks
  • Proofread when used for professional purposes as confusion due to writing errors can be costly when acted upon immediately
  • Use only when able; never text when driving because the distraction turns your vehicle into a lethal weapon; never text when walking because you get in people’s way, hit obstacles yourself, and look like a slave to technology
  • Use for exchanging short messages quickly with someone physically distant
  • Get an information exchange in writing for reference later
  • Use when confidentiality isn’t important

Channel: Tweet

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Able to reach a large audience of social media users for promotion using hashtags and by developing a following
  • Able to broadcast real-time updates accessible on smartphones
  • Able to send and reply to direct messages rapidly (like texting and instant messaging)
  • The 280-character limit (previously 140 before 2018) on tweets encourages conciseness
  • Able to link people to webpages for more information
  • The 280-character limit forces concision often leading to confusing initialisms, abbreviations, and word omission
  • Strike a balance in posting frequency—not too seldom, not too often
  • Be concise but also clear and grammatically correct
  • Maximize potential by using hashtags and links to usher readers towards further information
  • Broadcast information in real time to a broad range of users
  • Use when confidentiality isn’t important

Channel: Instagram

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Instagram for Business provides branding visuals for interested customers, especially millennials
  • Allows customers to respond in real time
  • The audience is largely limited to a younger demographic with limited spending power
  • Means of expression is limited to photos and brief captions
  • Can undermine professional credibility if used for selfies, which make you appear juvenile and overly self-involved
  • Inconvenient if posting and managing an account from a laptop or desktop computer rather than a smartphone
  • Doesn’t provide an easy way to link to a company website to provide audiences with further information
  • Contributes to a platform seen to be the worst for mental health (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017)
  • Use for providing visuals of company products or services rather than for individual self-promotion with selfies
  • Strike a balance in posting frequency—not too seldom, not too often
  • Include as part of a marketing mix that includes other social media such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Post company photos to reach younger demographics

Channel: Article, essay, or blog

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Able to write at length about any topic and reach a potentially large online audience as a blog or article published in an online media outlet
  • Can allow dialogue if a comments section is enabled below if posted online
  • Tend to be monologues without the possibility of feedback
  • People with short attention spans tend to avoid large chunks of text
  • Some tend to be wary of blogs because they are a genre overpopulated by people’s ill-formed opinions
  • Organize with a clear topic thesis and support it with a logical flow of convincing arguments built around credible evidence
  • Edit and proofread to ensure correctness, conciseness, and reader-friendly flow
  • Enable comments for feedback and dialogue
  • Articulate thoughts on topics that require lengthy development

Channel: Letter

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Shows respect through formality and effort
  • Ensures confidentiality when sealed in an envelope and delivered to the recipient’s physical address (it is illegal to open someone else’s mail)
  • Can introduce other physical documents (enclosures)
  • Slow to arrive at the recipient’s address depending on how far away they are from the sender
  • Can be intercepted or tampered with in transit (albeit illegally)
  • Can be overlooked as junk mail
  • Time consuming to print, sign, seal, and send for delivery
  • Mail postage is costlier than email
  • Follow conventions for different types of letters (e.g., block for company letters, modified block for personal letters) and providing the sender’s and recipient’s address, date, recipient salutation, closing salutation, and author’s signature
  • Use company letterhead template when writing on behalf of your organization
  • For providing a formal, permanent, confidential written message to a single important person or organization
  • Ideal for job applications (cover letter), persuasive messages (e.g., fundraising campaigns), bad-news messages, matters with possible legal implications (e.g., claims), and responses to letters
  • For non-urgent matters

Channel: Memo

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Provides a written record of group decisions, announcements, policies, and procedures within an organization
  • Can also be a format for delivering small reports (e.g., conference report) and recording negotiating terms in agreements between organizations (e.g., memo of understanding)
  • Can be posted on a physical bulletin board and/or emailed
  • Requires a good archiving system to make memos easily accessible for those (especially new employees) needing to review a record of company policies, procedures, etc.
  • Use template with company letterhead
  • Follow the same conventions as email, except omit the opening and closing salutations and e-signature
  • For a written record for decisions, announcements, policies, procedures, and small reports shared within an organization
  • Post a printed version on an office bulletin board and email to all involved

Channel: Report / PowerPoint

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Allows presentation of a high volume of information presenting research and analysis
  • Can take various forms such a document booklet or proposal for reading alone or PowerPoint for presenting
  • Time-consuming to write with proper research documentation and visual content, as well as to prepare for (presentations)
  • Time-consuming for the busy professional to read or an audience to take in
  • Presentations can bore audiences if not engaging
  • Follow conventions for organizing information according to the size of the report, audience, and purpose
  • Augment with visuals
  • Engage audiences with effective oral delivery and visual appeal
  • For providing thorough business intelligence on topics important to an organization’s operation
  • For internal or external audiences
  • For persuading audiences with well-developed arguments (e.g., proposal reports)

Channel: Fax

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Fast delivery of letters and forms
  • Allows the use of company letterhead
  • Limited to 8.5×11” formats
  • Expensive for the purchase of fax machines and paper rolls that need regular replacing
  • Possibly expensive if long-distance phone charges apply
  • Few people use fax and a dwindling number of businesses still use them
  • Keep it short
  • Use only if required in an industry that still favours fax
  • For sending forms or work orders in industries that still use fax (e.g., health care)

Channel: Phone, VoIP, voicemail, and conference calls

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Enables audio-only dialogue between speakers anywhere in the world
  • Quick back-and-forth saves time compared to written dialogue by email or text
  • Can send one-way voicemail messages or leave them when the recipient isn’t available
  • Can be conducted cheaply over the internet (with Voice over Internet Protocol) and easily on smartphones
  • Specialized phone equipment and VoIP enable conference calls among multiple users
  • Absence of nonverbal visual cues can make dialogue occasionally difficult
  • The receiver of a call isn’t always available, so the timing must be right on both ends; if not, availability problems lead to “phone tag”
  • Time zone differences complicate the timing of long-distance calls
  • Possibly expensive for long-distance calls over a public switched telephone network (PSTN) if VoIP isn’t available
  • Not always clear how long you have to leave a voicemail message, running the risk of being cut off if your message runs too long
  • Recording of conversations is typically unavailable unless you have special equipment
  • Follow conventions for initiating and ending audio-only conversation
  • For voicemail, strike a balance between brevity and providing a thorough description of the reason for the call and your contact information
  • Record a professional call-back message for voicemail when not available to take a call
  • Respond to voicemail as soon as possible since you were called with the hope that you would be available to talk immediately
  • Be careful with confidential information over the phone, and don’t discuss confidential information via voicemail
  • For when quick dialogue is necessary between speakers physically distant from one another
  • Conference call when members of a team can’t be physically present for a meeting
  • Use VoIP to avoid long-distance charges
  • Leave clear voicemail messages when receivers aren’t available
  • When a record of the conversation isn’t necessary
  • When confidentiality is somewhat important

Channel: Video chat and web conference

Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Enables face-to-face one-on-one or group meetings for people physically distant from one another (anywhere from across town to the other side of the planet)
  • Allows participants to see nonverbals that would be unseen in a phone conference meeting
  • Can be integrated into a real in-person meeting to include physically absent members
  • Inexpensive with common applications such as Skype, FaceTime (for Apple devices), and Google Talk
  • Cheaper than flying people around to conduct routine meetings
  • Connection problems often result in poor audio quality (cutting in and out) and split-second delays that result in misleading nonverbal cues and participants talking over one another
  • Enterprise applications improve functionality but for a cost
  • Requires a high-speed internet connection, microphone, and webcam all in good working order
  • Requires that participants be as present and presentable (at least from the waist-up) as they would be for an in-person meeting
  • Participants must control their background surroundings, especially when web conferencing from home, to avoid interruptions
  • For when in-person meetings are necessary but participants are in different physical locations
  • Often used for job interviews when participants cannot conveniently attend in person

Choosing the correct communication channel on the spectrum of options using the criteria above involves a decision-making process based on the purposes of the communication, as discussed earlier in this chapter. Factors to consider include convenience for both the sender and receiver, timeliness, and cost in terms of both time and money. When choosing to send an email, for instance, you:

  1. Begin with the thought you need to communicate
  2. Decide that it must be in writing for future reference rather than spoken
  3. Consider that it would be more convenient if it arrived cheaply the instant you finished writing it and hit Send
  4. Want to give the recipient the opportunity to respond quickly or at least within the 24-hour norm
  5. Decide that it would be better to send your message by email rather than by other electronic channels such as text, instant message (because you have more to say than would fit in either of those formats), or fax because you know the recipient prefers email over fax, as do most people and all but a few professional fields.

All of these decisions may occur to you in the span of a second or so because they are largely habitual. Figure 2.3 charts out that decision-making process for selecting the most appropriate channel among the 12 given in Table 2.3 above.

Flow chart outlining how to choose the best channel of communication for your needs

Figure 2.3: Channel Selection Process Flow Chart

We will examine the uses, misuses, conventions, and implications of these channels in the chapters ahead, especially Chapters 6-7 on written documents and Chapters 10-11 on oral communication. For now, however, let’s appreciate that choosing the right channel at the outset of the writing process saves time—the time that you would otherwise spend correcting communication errors and doing damage control for having chosen the wrong one for the situation at hand. If you find yourself forced to meet someone in person to deal with the damage wrought by a toxic email exchange before moving forward, just think how you would be into the next steps if you had skipped the email war and met in person to deal with the situation like adults in the first place.

Key Takeaway

key iconChoose the most appropriate communication channel for the occasion by taking into account the full spectrum of traditional and electronic means, as well as your own and your audience’s needs.


pen and paper iconIdentify the most appropriate channel for communicating what’s necessary in the following situations and explain your reasoning.
1. You come up with a new procedure that makes a routine task in your role in the organization quicker and easier. Praise for your innovation goes all the way up to the CEO, who now wants you to meet with the other employees in your role in the seven other branch offices across the province to share the procedure.
2. A customer emails you for a price quote on a service they would like you to do for them. (Your company has a formal process for writing up quotes on an electronic form that gives a price breakdown on a PDF.)
3. You are working with two office mates on a market report. Both have been bad lately about submitting their work on time and you’re starting to worry about meeting the next major milestone a few days from now. Neither has been absent because you can see them in their offices as you walk by in the hallway.
4. You are about to close a deal but need quick authorization from your manager across town about a certain discount you would like to apply. You need it in writing just in case your manager forgets about the authorization or anyone else questions it back at the office.
5. Your division recently received word from management that changes to local bylaws mean that a common procurement procedure will have to be slightly altered when dealing with suppliers. Your team meets to go over the changes and the new procedure, but you need to set it down in writing so that everyone in attendance can refer to it, as well as any new hires.
6. You have a limited amount of time to discuss a potential funding opportunity with a colleague in another city because the proposal deadline is later in the week and it’s almost closing time in your colleague’s office. You’ll have to hammer out some details about who will write the various parts of the proposal before you get to work on it tonight.
7. You were under contract with a local entrepreneur to perform major landscaping services. Near the end of the job, you discovered that he dissolved his company and is moving on, but you haven’t yet been paid for services rendered. You want to formally inform him of the charges and remind him of his contractual obligations; in doing so you want to lay down a paper trail in case you need to take him to court for breach of contract.


Royal Society for Public Health. (2017, May 19). Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health. Retrieved from https://www.rsph.org.uk/about-us/news/instagram-ranked-worst-for-young-people-s-mental-health.html


This chapter is adapted from 2.3: Selecting Appropriate Channels in Communication at Work by Jordan Smith.


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Communication at Work Copyright © 2022 by Julie Rivers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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