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How to Be 720 Times Better as a Communicator

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I will never listen to another voicemail in my life. We are never ever, ever, ever getting back together. Like ever. Why are the tools of modern communication so broken? Voicemail is my pet hate. Three minutes of what often sounds like someone shouting at passing traffic. Followed by a volley of digits spat out with the vocal dexterity of a Red Bull-infused MC.

In an act that sharply divided my colleagues, a few months ago I turned off my voicemail on my phone. I can't recommend it enough. My first steps toward this decision were respectful and permission-based. For months my voicemail message plaintively asked callers "not to leave messages here - but to text or email instead".

Even with that request so often I'd emerge from a tube station to be presented with the stern, leering tape symbol. The LED equivalent of your ears burning. I'd call back only to endure familiar listless drone followed by an unintelligible number. That was the worst thing about voicemails - unlike the new Robbie Williams record, you can't get away with listening to them just once.

Like emails, voicemails are totally broken but no one seems prepared to accept it. It seems that the essence of all communication is to understand that in every circumstance there is a mismatch between "message transmitted" and "message received". Yes, dear colleague, you may well have typed out very clearly over two pages the new procedure for dealing with invoice queries. I read it as boring dirge - and filed it "come back to when confined to bed on doctor's orders."

Like email, voicemail makes the mistake of thinking that the more expansive the communication the greater the clarity. Unfortunately the trade-off here is that no one wants to stick around to hear it. Tomi Ahonen - a consultant who has worked with brands like Nokia - has produced some highly plausible research about the impact of brevity on communication. His findings are stunning. The average text message is answered in four minutes. The average email is opened (not even responded to, just opened) in two days. Text messages are 720 times quicker than emails. And to a large extent that means they are more effective. You want to get your point across? Send them a text.

Brevity and clarity seem to be perfect partners. I'm very taken with the thinking behind Five Sentences (http://five.sentenc.es). Their philosophy is that emails should be answered like texts. Simple transactional responses no more than five sentences long. As someone who has been chided for my own abruptness in emails, if this succinctness became the norm I'd be probably looking forward to a few more Christmas cards.

One of the founders of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, when asked about Twitter's own restrictive 140 character limit is unequivocal. This isn't a product disadvantage, this is a product feature.

Maybe I'd not be so ruthless with voicemail if we could be more restrictive. In the old days when things like tapes and answerphones were things, I used to have an answerphone that was brutal. The caller would get 30 seconds to dither and drone. Then came the killer intervention, "please complete your message in 10 seconds". You could nearly hear brains becoming adrenalised into action. Restriction brought clarity of expression. Boom - ten seconds to go! People got to the business end of the message in a jolt.

The tools of communication aren't to blame - just our rules of how to use them. Until then, text me, yeah?