Lose the Extra Words: Communication Lessons from Aviation II

When I am diagnosing communication problems I see that the errors fall mostly into two categories. The first is saying the wrong thing; this is a problem of influencing and not trivial to fix. The other is simply having too many words, which is much easier to correct and much harder to excuse.

Using fewer words works on several levels. First of all busy people are more likely to read what you have written if it is concise. They are also more likely to read it accurately, since scanning wordy text at high speed may give the impression of having understood when you have really missed some critical word. Finally, when the writing is done artfully, a shorter text is much easier to process because your brain cannot handle more than 7 +/-2 "chunks" at a time, so the parsing of denser information is intrinsically less reliable.

Good writers have known this for decades, and "omit needless words" was one of the most important mantras in Strunk & White's legendary book "The Elements of Style". Everyone I have taught writing has been taught to follow this rule, too. The rule is very simple: take away all of the words that are not needed and what is left will be stronger. You can apply "omit needless words" and still leave a grammatically correct and even elegant piece of writing, but there are cases where you can go even further.

Once on a flight from Paris to Atlanta in the pre-9/11 days when visits to the flight deck were the norm, rather than being banned, I sat on the jumpseat of a 767 reading a fascinating book called the Quick Reference Handbook, or QRH. This handy volume is within reach of airline pilots at all times and lists the actions to be done in various scenarios where urgent, accurate action is needed. Tailstrike on takeoff? No problem, see page 5.2. Airspeed unreliable? See page 10.2. Engine falls off? Section 8.6.  Each page then lists in terse commands the exact sequence of actions to be taken, with a minimum of explanatory notes.

A QRH is not the place to learn something new but it a very useful aid for recalling things that have already been learnt, falling between the crew's "memory items" -- those actions that are so urgent that they need to be memorized -- and the stuff you can look up at your leisure. After studying an aircraft QRH I borrowed the technique for checklists I use in workshops and coaching sessions.

You can see an example in the post Seven and a Half Things to do When Someone Asks You to Deliver Their Presentation, a checklist originally prepared for a coaching client who had exactly this problem.  QRH-style lists are a very powerful technique for summarizing the correct steps to take in various situations, and not just for people flying airplanes or operating complex equipment. You can make a QRH-style checklist also for situations like a PR crisis, an employee performance appraisal, cold calls from advertising salespeople or any other recurring situation. Bound in a handy binder or stored in a simple app they can be on the desk or in the pocket of everyone who needs it, making them feel more confident and ensuring they follow the right process even in urgent situations. The few words on the checklist will be much more effective than a longform essay on the same topic-

Related posts

Seven and a Half Things to do When Someone Asks You to Deliver Their Presentation.
Communications Lessons from Aviation: When "Rogering" People is Good Business Practice

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For lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on this and other communication topics visit http://andrewhennigan.com, email conseil@andrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.


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