Communication failure – kindergarten style

My eldest son noticed that we changed the calendar at the house and asked me what month it now was. “It’s September now,” I told him. You could see the gears inside his head turn as he processed this news. “So next is October, and then November?” he asked.

“You got it.” I replied, happy that he was remembering his kindergarten lessons so well.

“That means it is almost my birthday!” He announced. “I need to start working on my wish list.”

I gave him some paper, moved his pencil and crayons within reach, and continued working on my own task. As he scribbled away, I occasionally overheard him verbalize a few of the items he was adding to his list such as Legos, transformers, along with various other toys he had recently seen in various commercials.

Several minutes passed. Eventually he must have been satisfied that he captured everything as he proudly showed me the list of his must have items.

the wish list
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To say that somethings may have gotten lost in translation was a bit of an understatement. I had been expecting crude letters, or pictographs at the very least. Instead his list was made up of various colored circular bullet points and squares where text should be. He smiled as he pointed to each bullet point. Communication Failure. Clearly the list made perfect sense to him, but it was gibberish to me. I didn’t want him to think I was somehow judging his artwork, but I had to ask some clarifying questions. Otherwise he is in danger of having a disappointing birthday celebration. Luckily he didn’t seem to mind. He had mom’s full attention, and that was what he ultimately wanted.

At my day job, we have a phrase we use whenever someone has been given an unclear task or unclear need. We call it being handed a red rock. For example, a customer calls and says that they want a red rock. You excitedly hang up the phone, eager to put the order on the sales board. Only then do you realize that you have no idea how to fill the request. Did the customer want a crimson rock, or a scarlet rock? Did they want a rock they could fit in the palm of their hand, or one that they could use to prop a door open against a gusty wind.  What is their primary motivation, really? Is it truly about the rock, or is there some deeper need. In these cases, it is usually best to go back and ask for additional clarification rather than make assumptions. No one wants to disappoint a customer if they don’t have to.

When it is our turn to ask for something, how do we get want we really want on our wish list? How do we better communicate?

I am expected to give a presentation in front of approximately sixty to eighty people in three weeks, and am a wee bit nervous. What I do not want to do is provide a series of handouts that look like gibberish to my audience or go over talking points that sound like a foreign language. Communication strategy is high on my mind at the moment, and I’ve been doing a little homework as I get ready for the big event.

Some of my favorite communication tips (for home or for work) are:

  • Eliminate unnecessary details. Imagine you are limited to 3 sentences to get your message across. Make each one count.
  • Be specific. Don’t just say you want a report on your desk, explain what should be in the report and when it is due.
  • Don’t rush. Give the person on the other end time to process your words and put them into their own.
  • Match your tone and pitch to that of the person you are engaging. They will be more likely to respond to you positively and stay engaged.
  • Ask open-ended questions rather than yes or no questions. These help better identify motivation. For example, do not say, “do you have any questions?” Instead ask, “what questions do you have for me?”

What tips would you share with me?

2 thoughts on “Communication failure – kindergarten style

  1. PowerPoint presentation limited to six slides total, period. Use of bullet points (as so well illustrated below) Comic relief Snacks You’re welcome!

    Sent from my iPad



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