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The Three Speeds of Communication

Leonardo Federico · May 29th, 2020

Effective communication has three speeds. These speeds must all exist in separate forms. Different products suit different velocities. There's no such thing as one product for everything.

With order:

1. Real-Time

This is the fastest of the three speeds. This is the speed where the participants engage with each other at the same time. This kind of communication happens often in one-to-one group chats. People write at the speed of thought and exchange ideas through short, direct messages. Everything happens in the range of seconds, minutes at most.

The characteristics of the real-time are:

  • Fast. The interface reacts within milliseconds. People write content in a matter of seconds. Minutes at most.
  • Synchronous. Everyone must be present at the same time.
  • Interactive. Texts get delivered in the shortest time possible. Often in under a minute, sometimes less.
  • Rich content. Video and audio can be primary factors.
  • Real-Time. There's an expectation of an immediate answer.
  • Ephemeral. What’s said is valuable for the time being. But it won't persist beyond that.
  • Stateless. Messages aren't bound to a particular context. They are hard to decipher when taken one-by-one.
  • Signal/Noise ratio. On average it's low for 1-on-1 conversations but it gets higher for group conversations. The signal ratio is in function on how many people interact and what's the topic of the discussion.

Examples of real-time tools

  • Slack / Teams / Zulip / Quill / Any chat software
  • Zoom / Google Hangout / GoToMeeting / WebEx Any video conference meeting
  • Tandem/Remotion/Around

Besides chat and video products, many tools nowadays have some real-time capabilities. These point messaging features can be extremely useful, in context, but hide information and decision making away.

2. Async

This is the medium speed. This is the speed where the participants engage with each other, but not at the same time. The implicit assumption is that eventually, you will acknowledge the message. Only the participants can determine how fast the back and forth resolve. Some asynchronous conversations take hours, other days. There are no limits to how many participants can asynchronous communication involve. It can take the form of unicast communication with one-on-one discussions, or broadcast/multicast when involving larger groups of people. Asynchronous communications, like real-time suit the best feed form of flow.

The traits of the asynchronous communication are:

  • Slow. The interface can take a few seconds to get the communication across. People write content in the 1-hour range. But very rarely it can take days.
  • Asynchronous. The participants involved can be in different places at different times.
  • Rich Content. It's usually text. Sometimes there can be video and audio to give extra context and convey more information.
  • Delayed. There’s no expectation of an immediate answer. Depending on the person, it can be minutes, hours, or days.
  • Persistent. It creates a persistent track record that can be re-read at any time later.
  • Reference. The premise of async communications is to be able to keep what's happening in context. References allow you to modularize updates and cross-link them. Bi-directional linking should enhance the relations between information. Since async focuses on transactional communication, as updates get older, references to them become less frequent.
  • Linear. The structure is chronological. From the most to the least recent logged activity.
  • Stateful. Messages are bound to particular context. You can read an async update and still be able distill the information. As time goes by, the update becomes less relevant. Reference helps you maintaining the logical network clear.
  • Signal/Noise ratio: On average it's pretty high. Elapsed time frame give people time condense their thoughts in less characters.

Examples of Async tools

  • Pulse
  • Wordpress P2
  • Email
  • Twist / Threads

3. Storage

This is the slowest speed. You write with the idea that some people – sometimes in the future – will read it. Your words are different. Your tone is different. Unlike real-time, you don't expect an immediate reply. Unlike asynchronous communication, you don't expect an acknowledge. It’s often a piece of content that can stand on its own, covering a specific topic or subject.

The characteristics of the storage speed are:

  • Slow. The publishing process can certainly take hours, in some cases even days. Sometimes there can be an editorial review and a final approval between.
  • One-off. Once the author publishes the content, he won't need to get back to it.
  • Rich Content. Like async, usually text but it can be enriched through audio, and video to convey more.
  • Persistent. It's very persistent, almost timeless. Depending on your usage, knowledge base versioning can be important.
  • Reference. As asynchronous communication, reference is an important factor. Unlike async, the goal here is to create a narrative and make sure every part of the knowledge base is referenced somewhere and gets the right amount of exposure through links.
  • Stateful. Messages are bound to a particular context. You should be able to read an async update and still be able to grok its meaning. As time goes by, the update becomes less relevant but references help you maintaining context clear.
  • Non-Time Based. Unlike async and real time, storage follows a non-chronological structure. The structure mostly depends on the product you're using. It can be very logically organized following hierarchies, categories, tags and metadata (a-là Confluence or Notion) or – on the opposite side of the spectrum – the complete opposite (a-là Roam.
  • Autonomous: No answer is needed. The content is self contained and communicates by itself.

Examples of storage tools

  • Atlassian Confluence
  • Notion
  • Quip
  • Microsoft Sharepoint
  • GitBook for MD
  • GitHub / GitLab
  • DropBox Paper
  • Google Drive
  • Any wikis or storage software

How you communicate, is how you work

First, don't start with tools. Start with your own set of values and principles. What do you care about? What's your way of work? What are your expectations? What's your philosophy about team alignment?

1. You need all three velocities

Beware of products that either conflate the three speeds or claims to be good for everything. The tagline "Slack Kills Emails" worked well from a marketing standpoint, but it's far from reality. The same can be said for async tools who position themselves as the anti-chat.

Real-time is powerful, and it's here to stay. It's just not enough and poorly suited for certain use cases.

2. Balance the three according to your principles.

If you believe in a written culture, you should be more inclined to async and storage type of comms. If you believe in real-time, and a face-to-face environment. You should lean towards to chat and video.

It comes down to your own culture, your own beliefs, and even the attitude of your people. For instance, extroverts who are good at talking will lean to real-time interactions. Introverts who are good at writing, towards text and written communication.

These principles will also have to influence your hiring decisions.

If you want to set out a culture of excellent written communication, hire people that are good at communicating as they are at their job. You can't compromise on that.

Not doing so, will create forces that pull in different directions.

3. Experiment.

If you don't have yet a set of principles, run internal experiments. See what workflows your people accept and what they reject. In the end, you'll find a balance.

Here's some examples of companies who publicly stated their communication velocities and the tools they use.

1. The Automattic Stack

Automattic relies on Slack and Zoom for real-time conversations, P2 for async and WordPress for Storage.
P2 is their most important tool. It's used for any type of asynchronous communication. It's what allows them to stay and keep others up to date on important issues. The Field Guide is the internal wiki. And like P2, it also runs on WordPress. Alister Scott explained in great detail how exactly they use Real-Time vs. Async vs. Storage.

This comes from an extract from a recent article on the Distributed Blog: What Are the Key Tools for Creating an Effective Remote Work Environment?

Try out a no-email approach. At Automattic, our secret sauce is that we don’t use email within the company. Instead, we have an internal blogging system called P2. P2 displays all conversations on a team or project’s homepage, updates in real time, and comes with the built-in benefit of being a searchable blog. You can also tag individuals and teams on P2. This system creates rich conversations that happen asynchronously and then become the collective wisdom of Automattic. We publish well over 1,000 posts and comments every day.

  • Real-time: Slack / IRC / Zoom
  • Async: WordPress P2 Theme
  • Long-Term: WordPress

2. The Stripe Stack

Stripe runs on both Slack/Zoom for real-time, and use internal distribution mailing lists for async. Former CTO Greg Brockman has discussed in deep detail how the system work in this post. They've also created a few OS projects to support the system. It would be great to see a new public update from Stripe on how they've scaled it from 500+ to 3000+ employees.

  • Real-time: Slack / Zoom
  • Async: Gmail
  • Long-Term: Confluence

3. The Zapier Stack

Zapier is well known for Zapier Async. It's a custom version of WordPress P2. Mike Knoop explained in this short interview how they successfully combined the three speeds at Zapier.

  • Real-time: Slack / Zoom
  • Async: Custom version of P2
  • Long-Term: Quip

Next Step

This post is part of a short series. If you're interested in reading more, leave your email at the top.

It's worth to remind that we're giving white gloves onboarding to all the companies who are signing up for Pulse now. If you feel this product would help your company move toward a written culture, we'll be glad to help. You can get started here. Pulse comes at a fixed price of 99$/year for teams up to 15 users. For larger teams and enterprise $10/active user per month.

If you have further ideas, reach out at @leonardofed or leonardo [at] pulse.so.