What Is Formal Communication and Why Is It Important?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published November 10, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The way you communicate with people may depend on the setting you're in and your relationship with your conversation partner. At work, you may use formal communication to interact with your colleagues. Learning more about formal communication and its different types can allow you to deliver your messages correctly and help you form professional relationships. In this article, we answer the question, "What is formal communication?", explain why it's important, discuss the different types and methods of formal communication, and offer tips to help you improve your communication skills.

What is formal communication?

Learning the answer to the question, "What is formal communication?" can help you communicate with your colleagues better. Formal communication is an exchange of official information between people within the same organization who are often at different levels within the organizational hierarchy. It's a controlled means of communication that follows pre-defined channels and adheres to predetermined rules, standards, processes and regulations set by the company. Formal communication follows the organization's chain of command, with a top-down structure, meaning that higher-ranking employees often use it to send various messages and instructions to lower-level individuals.

Related: A Guide to Effective Group Communication (With Tips)

Why is formal communication important?

Some of the main reasons it's important to implement formal workplace communication include:

  • It clearly defines and establishes authority. Using formal communication within an organization helps create an efficient flow of information between higher-level and lower-level employees. This, in turn, helps subordinates know exactly what their responsibilities are and to who they report.

  • It improves overall efficiency. Having efficient communication usually means that overall efficiency, at all levels, is likely to improve. The main reason for that is the fact that properly implementing formal communication tends to reduce ambiguities significantly.

  • It reduces the likelihood of mistakes and errors. Communicating within the boundaries of formal communication tends to reduce the change of any mistakes and errors occurring, as the message is usually more clearly understood and comes from a source of authority.

  • It can create discipline. Clearly defining an organization's hierarchy and using formal communication for internal messaging can improve overall discipline, as everyone knows exactly who they report to and who reports to them.

  • It can improve work coordination. Formal communication across different departments within an organization can help them better coordinate their work, due to the unambiguous messaging and clearly defined chain of command.

  • It tends to be more credible when sending important messages. Using formal communication for high-priority messaging, such as company objectives, overall business directions, or direct orders to employees or departments, is usually more reliable and credible by the recipients, which makes it more likely that they would fully comply.

Related: Communication in Organizations (With Benefits and Types)

Types of formal communication

Here are the four common types of formal communication businesses may use:

Downward communication

Downward communication is when the higher levels of a company, such as its management team, relay information to its lower levels. Businesses may use this type of communication to update employees about new policies, products, or services. Management teams may also use downward communication to delegate tasks or update employees' responsibilities. Downward communication is typically one-directional, meaning it doesn't invite a response from employees.

Related: The Importance and Advantages of Downward Communication

Upward communication

Upward communication is when the lower levels of a company contact the higher levels. This may be to provide feedback, offer suggestions, or submit complaints. Many companies encourage upward communication to encourage a participative work culture and to help employees feel more satisfied with their job.

Related: What Is Upwards Communication? (Advantages and Examples)

Horizontal communication

Horizontal communication, or lateral communication, is when coworkers interact. These coworkers may be in different departments or roles, but are on the same hierarchical level within the company. A common example of horizontal communication is multiple department heads meeting to discuss their teams' progress.

Related: 7 Essential Channels of Communication in the Workplace

Diagonal communication

Diagonal communication, or crosswise communication, is when communication across all departments and hierarchical levels occurs. Reporting relationships don't matter in this type of communication as any employee can contact another employee to offer or ask for information. Here are some examples of diagonal communication:

  • A customer service employee asking the human resources specialist for a copy of the company's policies.

  • A marketing employee asking a manufacturing manager for an updated timeline for the company's upcoming product release.

  • The CEO and human resources manager meeting to create a list of requirements for a new position.

Related: 15 Communication Skills for Professionals to Develop

Formal communication methods

Here are some commonly used methods of formal communication:

Formal discussions

A one-on-one discussion between people working for the same organization, in similar or different places on the hierarchical scale, is an often-used method of formal communication. As this sort of discussion can take place between virtually any member of the organization, formal discussions can use any of the four types of formal communication. You can have a discussion simply by approaching a colleague with a question or concern, but scheduling a one-on-one meeting can make it more formal.

Letters and e-mails

Letters, in either physical or electronic form, are a widely used method of formal communication. Their versatile nature means that you can use all four types of formal communication when writing your letter. To choose between writing a letter or e-mail, consider the pros and cons of each. Letters are more personal and formal, but it can take longer for your recipient to receive them. E-mails are quick and you can send them to multiple people at once, but they aren't as personal.

Related: Formal E-mail Format (With Examples for Various Situations)

Memos

Short for memorandum, a memo is a written message sent to a large number of people within an organization or department. A memo usually details various procedures, business dealings, or upcoming changes. They're a common form of downward communication, as they usually describe a way in which certain employees can implement organizational change. Management teams also often send out memos to ensure everyone involved is up-to-date with its content.

Related: How to Write a Business Memo (With Template and Examples)

Activity reports

An activity report typically outlines your progress for a specific day, week, month, or quarter. You may send this report to your management team to update them about how you spend your time and what you achieved during that period. This is a form of upward communication.

Related: Information Report Examples: Definition, Types, and Formats

Meetings

Meetings are a common example of upward and downward communication as management and subordinates meet, interact with one another, and exchange ideas or information. These meetings may involve everyone in a department or representatives from multiple departments and the management team. Teams may schedule daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly meetings to discuss a specific topic, such as ideas for a new product.

Related: How to Run an Effective Meeting With Your Staff

Tips for improving formal communication

Consider these tips for improving your formal communication technique:

  • Avoid contractions. Using contractions when communicating, such as replacing you are with you're, can make the entire message sound less formal. By using the complete versions, you can improve the formality of your message.

  • Use official titles and address people formally. Using official titles when addressing other individuals is an indication of formal communication. If the recipient has no official title, such as Dr. or Ph.D., you can use Mr., Mrs., or Ms., followed by their name.

  • Use company or professional jargon. Using specific jargon is an effective way of showing the recipients of a formal communication method that everyone involved is part of the same team or group. This may include acronyms, phrases, or specific words you use at work that everyone knows.

  • Avoid using anecdotes or analogies. Although anecdotes and analogies are effective ways of expressing ideas in everyday communication, formal communication usually has a more abstract form. Direct and unambiguous messaging is usually the main requirement for efficient formal communication.

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