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Power of Communication in Legal Marketing - The Medium Does Change the Message Part 1

Today’s business environment offers more methods of communication than ever before.  However, more choices does not equal clarity or effectiveness, and in some ways, with the many mediums available communicating effectively requires a thoughtful understanding of the medium being used and how to best stay on message within that medium.  Lee Broekman of Organic Communication and Judith Gordon of LeaderESQ presented at the LMA Tech1 conference in San Francisco, focusing on empowering communication by understanding the medium at play.

Communication can be a major challenge for attorneys, yet it is a critical part of a lawyer’s job.  Gordon says,

To put it simply, lawyers ‘speak for’ their clients. Whether in transactional matters or litigation, lawyers are conduits of their clients’ intentions. To fully and accurately represent another—the essence of a lawyer’s work—understanding the fundamentals of communication is essential. Key communication skills—such as the ability to listen, understand, and then accurately present a client’s position to third parties in negotiations or litigation—are essential to a successful practice, and the smooth running of our legal system.

Broekman agrees, saying: “The lawyers I coach are highly skilled at managing cases and deals, but behind those cases and deals are clients and colleagues. Managing people and relationships is an entirely different skill set—lawyers who want to be successful have to put care into connecting with people who have different perspectives and preferences.”

The four main channels of communication are Person, Print, Phone and Panel. Each channel has strengths and weaknesses in particular situations, and understanding the nature of the message can help determine which channel is the most appropriate. 

The first channel is Person—and that is what it sounds like—the fewer and fewer face-to-face meetings, when everyone puts away their phones and looks each other in the eye across a desk or table.  This is the best medium for sensitive issues; even though some of the conversations can be difficult.  Broekman says, “Whenever the issue is sensitive, when a possible conflict is anticipated or a misunderstanding is to be expected —we should have a face-to-face or side-by-side conversation.”  Gordon points out that sensitive matters are best handled in person, because of the way humans process information: “Much of the information we glean from others is visual and auditory—facial expression, tone of voice and body language. When we remove that layer of information, our brains ‘fill in the blanks’ by superimposing our own judgment, which can be devastating.”  When the matter is sensitive or misunderstandings are anticipated, walking down the hall or getting on a plane is worth the effort--and when that’s not possible, a videoconference is a reasonable alternative to try and prevent misunderstandings.

Many times, these face to face meetings can be challenging-and the desire to avoid the awkward, sometimes painful conversation can be tempting.  With so many alternative ways of delivering bad news, it’s important to remember that it can help avoid confusion and drawn out conflict by having tough conversations across a desk without a screen as a buffer.  Broekman points out, “Our instinct is to hide behind the screens of our computers or smartphones, but typing or texting instead of talking could lead to bigger problems and drawn out conflict.” 

The second channel, print,  is any medium where the written word is paramount—emails, texts, letters, etc.  This is a channel where misunderstandings tend to cluster around tone—as you are “speaking” to readers, not listeners—who cannot see your face or hear your voice.  With this in mind, Gordon says, “direct communication is best. Write each sentence so that it is able to stand alone. A good rule of thumb is to stick to one message per sentence. The ‘one message per sentence’  rule heightens clarity and lessens ambiguity.  Gordon adds,  “It’s also a good idea to avoid sarcasm or innuendo in print, and allow the power of the written word to speak for itself without relying on inference.”  

To be clear in print, sometimes it’s helpful to overcompensate with your words to ensure your audience picks up what you are putting down. Broekman says, “Sometimes it's helpful to ‘massage your message’ with gentle words such as ‘will you please?’ when making a request, ‘yes, and’ when responding, and ‘yet’ when wanting to suggest that something is not quite done.”  Using the tools at your disposal to convey tone is an important step to take.  While smiley face emojis are appropriate when planning post-work drinks, they are not always professional and appropriate.  Broekman also suggests, “writing feeling behind our statements in parenthesis may be effective.”  For anyone who has misinterpreted all caps as anger, this is a tip that might resonate. 

In Part Two, we will examine the Phone and Panel mediums of communication and how to negotiate those streams.

1 Broekman and Gordon spoke at the Legal Marketing Technology Conference on October 6th in San Francisco. Their session was entitled Webinars, Podcasts and Mobile (Oh My!) The Medium Does Change the Message. The LMA Tech conference is the largest conference dedicated to technologies that law firms use to identify, attract and support clients.

Copyright ©2020 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 308


About this Author

Eilene Spear legal news editor and writer at the National Law Review
Operations Project Manager & Lead Writer

Eilene Spear is the Operations and Projects Manager for the National Law Review.  She heads the NLR remote publication team as the Lead Writer and assists in a variety of capacities in the management of the National Law Review.

As Lead Writer, Eilene writes extensively on a variety of legal topics; including legal marketing topics, interviews with top legal marketing professionals and the newest trends in legal marketing.  Additionally, Eilene writes on issues affecting the legal industry, such as women attorneys and the challenges they face,...