Sending Clear Signals
Dan Coulter, August 17, 2006
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My son is a careful driver. He uses his turn signals and
appreciates other drivers who do the same -- especially when he
sees folks who don’t. I appreciate products I have to assemble
that come with clear instructions -- because I’ve wrestled with
some that didn’t. I also appreciate callers who leave clear
answering machine messages -- because I’ve had voicemail where
callers rattled off a phone number so fast I couldn’t understand
it. I didn’t feel kindly as I replayed the message again and
again trying to catch the call-back number.
I believe most of these communications transgressions aren’t
intentional. I think most happen when someone is in a hurry or
distracted and absent-mindedly assumes that someone else knows
what he thinks or intends.
Communicating poorly seems so obviously wrong and annoying when
someone does it to us -- and so innocent when we do it to
Like my son, I’m in the habit of using my turn signals, but
there have been plenty of times when I could have communicated
my thoughts more clearly.
It’s easy to assume that you’re communicating effectively when
you’re not. Say you’re talking to a coworker about something
your boss did, then you change the subject and start talking
about a customer. After a while you get another sudden thought
about your boss and say, “He really should have told us before
he switched the schedule.” Your coworker is confused because he
thinks you’re still talking about the customer. He didn’t follow
your mental process as it switched back to the earlier
Sometimes the problem is familiarity. I remember my wife
complaining that she couldn’t understand the instructions from
workers at the department of motor vehicles where we used to
live. After giving the same directions to people in line
thousands of times, the workers rushed through them and ran
their words together.
In one of my corporate jobs, our department bought a
computer-controlled multi-media presentation system. The day we
were scheduled to learn to use it, the trainer called in sick
and they sent a sales person to fill in. As a teacher, he was a
disaster. He ran through the instructions so fast that none of
us could keep up. Then he got impatient because we weren’t
absorbing his information barrage. He knew the complex system
inside and out, so its operation was obvious to him. He thought
we just weren’t listening hard enough.
As parents and teachers, we need to be careful not to make these
mistakes with our kids and students. I’ve spent more than two
decades in communications-related jobs, and I learned early that
success isn’t measured by what you do or say, but by what your
With a new school year starting, parents can clearly communicate
to kids that you have high expectations and that you’re
available to help them succeed. You can follow this up by
helping your student get into the habit of having homework done
before bedtime, setting out clothes, organizing backpacks and
gym bags, and making other preparations. Of course, your focus
should always be on helping your child take on these
responsibilities himself. You also want to communicate to
teachers that you take an active part in your child’s education
and that you need to hear promptly if there are any problems
that your child needs to address -- or any opportunities that
might enhance his school year.
Teachers need to communicate their expectations to students and
be clear about the kind of work and quality of work it will take
to excel. It also helps to let students know how to ask for help
if they’re having trouble with the coursework -- especially in
ways that won’t embarrass them in front of other students.
Always posting assignments in the same place, handing out
written instructions and posting assignments on a school website
are good options to ensure students know what work to do and by
what deadline. By providing clear expectations and instructions,
you’re serving as an excellent role model for them to follow
when it’s their turn to communicate.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of communicating, here are
some “best practice” tips I’ve picked up over the years that can
help get a message across whether you’re trying to connect with
one person or a thousand.
THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK. What does the person you’re talking to
know about what you’re going to say? Is he familiar with it, or
is the subject new to him? This will help you choose your words.
START WITH A HEADLINE. Headlines are designed to tell readers as
much as possible about a story in the fewest possible words.
Starting with a headline helps your listeners mentally prepare
to absorb what you’re going to say. For example, your headline
might be: “Mom and Son Make List to Shop for School Supplies.”
Next you translate your headline into real language and say to
your son, “We need to go shopping for school supplies today.
Let’s make a list of what you’ll need.” This communicates your
plans for the day much more clearly than musing aloud, “You can
probably use last year’s binders, but we need to get you some
USE INVERTED PYRAMID STYLE. This is a technique journalism
students learn early. Basically, it means you put the most
important information at the top of your story and the least
important information at the bottom. That way, if someone only
reads a part of the story -- or if an editor cuts off part of
your article, the readers still get the information they need
most. When you’re giving instructions, whoever you’re talking to
gets the same benefit if the first words out of your mouth cover
the key points you want to make.
There are exceptions to this rule. For example, you may want to
build suspense and then surprise your listeners for effect. But
in most cases, your audience will appreciate your giving them
the big picture and then filling in the details.
TREAT YOUR AUDIENCE AS CUSTOMERS. Thinking of your audience as
customers can help you keep them interested by meeting their
needs. Consider what they want -- and use it. Trying to convince
teenagers to use good grooming? Appealing to their need to
impress the opposite sex is usually a good tactic.
BREAK OUT OF YOUR RUT. If you routinely give the same
instructions or information, it’s hard to maintain your
enthusiasm. Look for new words, or new methods, to deliver the
goods. Finding fresh ways to communicate helps keep you
energized and makes your audience more receptive.
BE CONCISE. It’s easy to lose an audience. Saying what you have
to say in as few words as possible can help you stay within
listeners’ attention spans and help them remember what you’ve
SEEK FEEDBACK. Watching faces while you talk or asking your
audience for questions can help you make sure you’re not wasting
their time -- or yours.
ENCOURGE NOTE TAKING. If your message or instructions are long
or complicated, taking notes can help your audience lock what
they hear or see into their memories. People have better recall
after they take notes, even if they never look back at what
To sum up, the next time you’re about to communicate, put
yourself in the position of the person or group that you’re
trying to reach and think,
- What do I really need to get across?
- How would I like to get this information?
- How can I be interesting, clear and concise?
As for turn signals, try thinking about how well drivers are
communicating every time you see them using or neglecting their
Effective communications are always worth an extra thought.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the
video, "Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills" and
other educational products. You can read more of his articles on
his website at:
Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter. All Rights Reserved. Used by
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