The basics of formal communication

Jelena Fisic

Last updated on: February 8, 2022

Do you think formal communication is a thing of the past? 

Do you think that it should be forgotten in modern-day organizations that strive towards informal modes of working — casual dress code, flattened hierarchies, and self-organization?

Well, think again. 

Although people are more prone to blurring the lines between formal and informal, there are cases in which formal communication is a must. 

In some cases, it’s the only thing keeping the chaos at work at bay.  

In this blog post, first, we’ll define formal communication and talk about its characteristics. 

After that, we’ll briefly consider the types of formal communication and give some examples. 

Finally, we’ll check out its importance and give you a few tips for improving formal communication. 

The basics of formal communication - cover

What is formal communication?

The first step of our journey through the world of formal communication is defining the term itself. 

Formal communication is exchanging official information between two or more people within the same organization, by following predefined rules and using official channels of communication. 

Mostly, it is done in written form.

It is controlled and flows through a hierarchical structure and chain of command in the organizational structure.  

If this sounds too vague, let’s clear it up a bit — by looking at the characteristics of formal communication.

The characteristics of formal communication

To be formal, communication should satisfy three conditions — it should be: 

  • Rational,
  • Structured, and
  • Goal-oriented.

Let’s consider all these characteristics in a bit more detail. 

1️⃣ Formal communication is rational  

This means that formal communication is based on rules and routines that promote efficiency and reduce personal biases. 

As such, it is:

  • Impersonal, for it focuses on roles in an organization rather than personal attributes.
  • Simple, designed to be efficient by establishing the flow of communication across functions rather than individuals, and is based on the organization’s hierarchy.

2️⃣ Formal communication is structured

Secondly, formal communication should be structured. 

But, what does that actually mean? What makes formal communication structured? 

  • It is explicit, prescriptive, and involves information that concerns all the members of the organization. 
  • A structured path is followed by the established chain of command.
  • It follows well-defined rules and regulations.

3️⃣ Formal communication is goal-oriented

Thirdly, formal communication usually consists of directives or information that aim to improve the efficiency of the workflow in the organization.

It is almost exclusively task-related, with the goal of maximizing efficiency and productivity among the organization members.

The next step on our journey is to clarify the difference between formal and informal communication. 

Formal vs informal communication

Since the flow of information in an organization can go through formal and informal channels, it’s time we see the differences between these two types of communication

Maybe the most obvious difference is the fact that formal communication goes through predefined, official channels, whereas informal (or grapevine) communication doesn’t use these rigid means of communication.

Aside from that, other differences between formal and informal communication are:

  • Reliability: Formal communication is the more reliable of the two. Due to the fact that it’s mostly realized in a written form, there is a paper trail of every interaction. 
  • Speed: Speaking of speed, the situation is a bit different. Namely, formal communication is significantly slower than informal. Sometimes, the cause of its slowness is red tape. On the other hand, informal communication is almost instantaneous. 
  • Time-consuming: Formal communication usually involves certain procedures that have to be followed, and that’s why it’s the more time-consuming type of communication. In contrast, informal communication doesn’t require much process time.
  • Information flow: When information flow is concerned, formal communication goes through official channels, as opposed to informal communication, which flows more freely. 
  • Secrecy: Formal communication implies secrecy, which is regulated through different predefined obligations for employees. At the same time, informal communication relies on individuals, so the same level of secrecy is not to be expected, as communication takes place off the record. 

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

To learn more about managing informal communication in your team, check out our blog post on that topic:

What are the types of formal communication?

We already mentioned that formal communication is structured and that it follows a chain of command. Speaking of directions of the said communication, it can be: 

  • Vertical,
  • Horizontal, and
  • Diagonal.

Vertical communication further branches out into downward (from the top down in the organizational hierarchy) and upward communication (from lower-level employees to their superordinates).

Furthermore, horizontal or lateral communication refers to our communication with peers.

Lastly, diagonal communication takes place among the members of different teams and departments. It doesn’t follow strict hierarchical rules, so members of different departments interact with one another, regardless of their position in the organization.

Now that we’ve considered the characteristics and types of formal communication, it’s time for some examples.

Examples of formal communication

Some examples of formal communication include: 

  • Meetings: Great for longer discussions about issues concerning the current and future projects.
  • Conferences: Useful for broadening knowledge about any areas of expertise, by listening and participating in panel discussions. 
  • Formal One-on-Ones: According to the research, around 70% of the surveyed managers cited it as a great way to understand and eliminate roadblocks. 
  • Memos: An effective way to describe a way in which organizational changes should be implemented.
  • Letters and emails: Useful for all kinds of correspondence, including organizational information. 
  • Presentations: Among other things, a practical way to show your coworkers what you have been working on. 
  • Company wiki page: A great way to keep your employees informed about the most common questions. 

After we’ve considered some examples of formal communication, the next step on our journey is to see what formal channels of communication are. 

What are formal channels of communication?

Since we’ve seen some examples of formal communication, we should take a look at some of the formal channels of communication. They include:

  • Email — used for all sorts of messages among coworkers.
  • Business messaging apps — useful for quick reminders and more pressing matters.
  • Printed statements — usually contain information relevant to all the members of the organization. 
  • News bulletins — a useful way to announce news and upcoming events.
  • Digital forms – organization website, internal forums, intranet, etc, used for sharing information, easier communication, and collaboration.

After giving you examples of formal communication and a list of the most common formal channels of communication, we hope you have a better understanding of this type of communication.

However, maybe you’re still not convinced of the importance of formal communication in this day and age. 

Hold your horses, we’ve got you covered.

Why is formal communication important?

Although more and more companies strive towards a more informal type of communication, and the workplace atmosphere keeps getting looser and looser — in the sense that not only Fridays are casual — formal communication is still necessary for certain situations.

That is why we should consider its importance. 

Formal communication is clear and reliable

Since it follows a strict set of rules, formal communication is clear and reliable. It offers little room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. 

Thereby, you’re minimizing the risk of miscommunication — which is often the consequence of favoring informal communication. 

Considering that formal communication helps your coworkers better understand what is expected of them, the whole process of communication becomes more reliable.

Formal communication is available for future reference

We’ve already mentioned that formal communication is mostly done in written form.

Although it’s nice to have face-to-face conversations with your colleagues — since it enables you to get things done more quickly — written communication is irreplaceable. 

It allows you to refer to it in the future, to check the information and the facts. 

Really convenient, especially when we think about how fragile our memory is

We have an extreme example of this upsetting phenomenon — people who confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Namely, according to an article from The New York Times, an unbelievable 24% of the 289 convictions were false confessions. 

So, if human memory is so fickle that people forget they aren’t criminals and confess to crimes they didn’t commit, imagine what else we are prone to falsely remember.

That’s why it’s so important to keep track of everything and have a paper trail of relevant discussions. A free business messaging platform, such as Pumble, allows unlimited history, which means everything you write is available to you for future reference forever. 

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

If you’re not sure how to find information in your chat history, we’ve got your back:

Formal communication saves time

This point sounds counterintuitive because we know it takes time to write an email or a message in your team messaging app — especially a formal one. 

Still, once you’ve written it, you can send it to multiple people — thereby saving valuable time you would otherwise spend discussing the issue with your coworkers. 

Sharing important information (Pumble business messaging app)
Sharing important information (Pumble business messaging app)

Formal communication helps management stay in full control

One of the benefits of formal communication is the fact that the same information goes out to all employees simultaneously, which minimizes the risk of rumors or hard feelings.

In other words, formal communication helps managers hold reins in the company. 

Aside from that, you may rest assured that your message won’t get distorted and that it will reach all your employees in the intended form.

This is especially important when it comes to announcing changes—  because sensitive topics can have negative effects on your coworkers if not dealt with properly. 

Luckily, there’s an easy solution to this potential problem.

Sending a message to all the employees at once via a business messaging platform is a great way to share relevant information. By sharing the same message with all employees simultaneously, we are showing them that we appreciate them equally and don’t play favorites. 

An example of announcing changes (Pumble business messaging app)
An example of announcing changes (Pumble business messaging app)

Formal communication feels less personal 

Yes, formal communication feels less personal — but, that’s fine. 

After all, the business environment shouldn’t be the scene where feelings reign. 

Thanks to formal communication, its participants can avoid awkward situations that may otherwise arise in a less formal communicative environment. 

After all the information about formal communication, we’re sure you’re dying to improve your formal communication skills.

Once again, we’re not letting you down.

In the following paragraphs, we’ll provide you with a few tips on how to develop formal communication skills at your workplace.

5 Tips for improving formal communication

All that’s left is to give you some advice on mastering the art of formal communication.

Let’s finish our journey in style! 

Avoid contractions 

Our first tip is fairly simple: Avoid contractions.

You don’t want your message to sound informal, so, just replace “You’re” with “You are”, etc. 

This is a foolproof way to improve the formality of the message you want to send to your coworkers.

Use official titles and address people formally

This is another fairly easy way to achieve formal communication: Use official titles. 

It can’t be simpler than that. 

By addressing your colleagues and business partners by their title and surname, you can easily keep things neutral.

If you don’t know the recipients’ official title (MA, MSc. or Ph.D.), or they don’t have one, feel free to use Mr. or Ms. plus their surname.

Minimize personal pronouns

We already mentioned that one of the characteristics of formal communication is that it is impersonal.

So, this is pretty much self-explanatory — refrain from using personal pronouns.

Your goal is to be objective, so your personal view of the matter is not that important. 

For instance, if smoking is prohibited in your company, your message to your employees should not be:

“You are not allowed to smoke anywhere in the building.”

Avoid using personal pronouns (“You”) and use passive voice instead: 

“Smoking is not allowed anywhere in the building.”

Use company or professional jargon

What’s the best way to show your business associates and colleagues that you’re “one of them”?

Speaking their language, of course. 

Namely, by using specific professional jargon, you’re showing your business partners and coworkers that you’re on the same team.

For instance, if you’re at a digital marketing convention, using the terms such as lead generation or breadcrumbs shows the other participants that you know what you’re talking about. 

If you want to help your new coworkers get familiar with the jargon, you can make a glossary and share it with them.

An example of a pinned message with the glossary (Pumble business messaging app)
An example of a pinned message with the glossary (Pumble business messaging app)

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

If you’re not sure what the rules about the use of professional jargon in internal communication are, check out our blog post on that topic:

Avoid using anecdotes

Yes, anecdotes are a colorful way to breathe life into your arguments and conversations overall.

However, the messages in formal communication should be direct and unambiguous — so anecdotes and analogies are not your friends here.

Keep it simple and matter-of-fact. 

For example, instead of saying:

“In my last company, where I worked as a data security manager, we had an interesting complaint about the leak of information. That’s why we’ve done the survey about the clients’ satisfaction. The majority of them are satisfied with our data security policy.” 

Say: 

“In a survey done two weeks ago, 89% of our clients expressed their satisfaction with our data security policy.”

So, be straightforward — instead of personal stories, choose numbers.

Wrapping up: Formal communication is for informal workplaces, too

However laid back and casual your company might be, communication must not be just informal. You have to use formal communication on at least some occasions. 

That’s why we’ve given you some tips on improving formal communication. 

If you retrace the steps we took together, you should be able to excel at this type of communication. 

So, come on — take a walk on the formal side! 

Author: JelenaFisic

Jelena Fisic is a writer and researcher, constantly reading and broadening her knowledge about communication and collaboration. As a long-time remote worker, she is eager to share her experiences and gathered knowledge, and give you some tips for improving team communication and collaboration skills while working from home.

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