A few years ago, one of my salespeople was rambling during a performance evaluation when she suddenly stopped herself mid-sentence. “Land the plane, Sarah,” she said. “Land the plane.”
I looked at her, confused. We were talking about sales performance, not flying a jet. She just laughed and told me that the saying “land the plane” was her own reminder to get to the point. As a child, her six(!) brothers and sisters would tease her for rambling, and always tell her that she was just circling the airport — she needed to stop flying around and get the plane on the ground.
I laughed and told her that was a fabulous saying, and that I was going to steal it for myself. Sarah certainly wasn’t the only person in my life who rambled, and I thought it would be a nicer way to tell someone to get to the point than just saying “get to the point!” What’s been interesting, though, is that I’ve told myself to land the plane far more than I’ve ever told anyone else. It’s a solid reminder that no one wants to wait in the air forever while I tell a story or explain a situation— everyone wants to get on the ground and get to where they are headed next.
Clear, Concise, Comprehensive
At the company I own, we have 22 Rules for Success, one of which is Communicate Clearly. These rules, if followed, make us all better, and Communicate Clearly is incredibly important — we work in a field where communication is king, and if we don’t do it well, we lose customers quickly. It is in our best interests to make sure that every communication we send out is clear, concise, and comprehensive. (Those last two might seem mutually exclusive, but I assure you they are not.)
The best example I’ve had recently of communication that is unclear, not concise and not comprehensive are the emails I receive from my daughter’s school. We get weekly email newsletters both from her classroom teacher (these are usually perfectly fine) and from the school administration (these are a train wreck). The bad communications are usually marked by a couple of failings — they’ll tell us when an event is, but not where or what the purpose is; they’ll tell us where an event is but not when; or they’ll send out an emergency email less than 24 hours before an event that we haven’t heard anything about before, letting us know most of the details. As a working mom sharing custody, this type of communication makes an already difficult job even harder. My ex and I (and our partners) are constantly scrambling to figure out where we have to be, and when, and with what, and who is expected to be there.
Internally, with my own folks, I’ll often get emails “explaining” situations that have occurred and finish the email having no clearer idea of what happened than I did when I started reading. This usually leads to a chain of emails with questions, responses, clarifications, and eventually, a request for an in-person meeting to make sense of it all. There are also times when I’ll simply reply (tersely) “This doesn’t make sense” because I’m so fed up with garbled email chains.
In college, I studied journalism, and that meant covering the 5 W’s relentlessly. I had many an editor who, after reading a story I’d written, would tell me to go back and find the missing W’s and write them in. Good business communication (hell, good communication in general) should include all five W’s every single time. Using this framework for your communication should lead to less confusion and fewer back-and-forth emails. I know I’ve failed as a communicator if someone has to respond to one of my emails with a question that should have been covered with the 5 W’s.
Here are they are, in case you forgot:
- Who needs to know/attend/respond/fill out paperwork?
- What needs to be done?
- Where do you/the information need to be?
- When does it need to be done/when do you need to be there?
- Why are we doing this/What are the consequences if we don’t?
Answer all five of those questions in every communication, and you are nearly home.
I’m a huge fan (obviously) of bullet points. I think more business communication should include them. I’ve also, recently, become a fan of electronically highlighting pertinent information. The most critical bits (tasks, consequences, dates and times) will often be highlighted in my emails now, just to make it easier to process communication more quickly. Humans in the digital age have an 8-second attention span — no one is going to read a five-page email. But they might read four bullet points, or at least focus one highlighted line.
Schedule a Meeting
Finally, I think it is important to understand when something isn’t going to be communicated well in an email, and to schedule a meeting instead. An obvious example is a performance correction, which should always be handled face-to-face, accompanied by a written record of the conversation, but a less obvious example would be a more nuanced situation, like an insurance claim in our business. My general rule of thumb is that if it takes more than two paragraphs to write out, I should probably get on the phone or meet in person. Issues that can take pages of written explanation can often be knocked out in a five-minute standup meeting at my desk.
In those situations, I’d much rather receive an email that says “Got a minute?” and says that the sender is facing an issue that requires a meeting because I’ll spend less time talking to them than I would have reading and responding to a dozen emails. Too often, people are unwilling to have face-to-face (or ear-to-ear, in the case of phone calls) interactions, preferring to deal with issues over email, but email has no nuance, no context. Something that I could say in a meeting that would be perceived as gentle, or funny, could come across in an email as abrupt or rude. We, as a society, need to be less afraid of in-person interactions and more willing to just hash things out in real time.
Land the Plane
In the end, clear communication is harder than it looks. Brevity is important, but it takes work. Landing the plane effectively requires preparation in advance — thinking about your comments and planning them, or drafting an email and editing it. There is a famous quote typically mis-attributed to Mark Twain that says, “I’d have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.” And it is true, writing for brevity takes longer than just vomiting out everything that is in your head and pressing send without a second thought. But the benefit to becoming a great communicator is clear:
People will start to pay attention to you.
If your staff knows that when you speak, everything you say has purpose, they’ll listen. If they know that every email you send gets right to the point, they’ll read them. You will suddenly find that you have to communicate less, because you are communicating better. Your messages will get to the right people, and have the effect you intended. You’ll spend less time clarifying, and more time working on the next task. You’ll be more respected, and people will respond to your requests more quickly. In other words, you’ll be a better leader, because you are a better communicator.