If your people aren’t doing what you expect them to, take a step back and see if you’re being brief and clear enough in your communication with them.
Instructor pilots in a fighter squadron learn early that brevity and clarity in communication are essential for mission success. At the speed of sound, information must be passed quickly and accurately to avoid potential catastrophe. On the ground, pre-flight briefings must eliminate cool-sounding but ultimately content-free sound bites or execution in the air will be compromised. When fighter pilots walk out to their jets with unresolved questions in their minds from a poorly conducted briefing, lethal consequences are a possibility.
In order to minimize superfluous chatter and to maximize understanding, fighter pilots use a variety of communication techniques. The following are three of the most important:
Tell them what to do, not what NOT to do
When I’m briefing a wingman on his responsibilities, I always focus on explaining what I want him to do. If I’m teaching him how to land, I’ll tell him to calculate and fly the proper final approach airspeed. That’s a specific, clear and brief command that focuses his efforts on the two things I need him to do—calculate a speed and then fly that speed.
What I won’t tell him is, “Don’t get slow on final approach.”
It’s true that being slow on final is bad and potentially dangerous. The problem is that, instead of focusing him on the correct behaviors that will allow him to be on speed, I’ve allowed his brain to contemplate the vast universe of things that could cause him to be slow. He might be thinking of a half dozen contingencies that aren’t even possible versus focusing on the things he must do to be successful.
Additionally, all of the words after “don’t” describe exactly what you want the listener to avoid, and you’re planting those words in his brain.
Guess what happened when I told my son, “Don’t let the clutch out too fast,” and “Don’t be nervous,” while we were sitting on an incline at a traffic light during a driving lesson with a manual transmission…
“Beat him down on energy” is a platitude that I was taught as a brand new F-16 pilot. It means that to win a dogfight against an adversary jet, you have to stay behind him until he bleeds off his airspeed. (Once he’s slow, he doesn’t have the kinetic energy to maneuver away from you. At that point, he’s been “beaten down on energy” and you point your nose at him to press the attack.)
Here’s the problem—the phrase itself is useless because it doesn’t explain how to “beat him down on energy.”
Job one for an instructor is to explain and demonstrate how to perform the correct behaviors to affect an outcome. “Beat him down on energy” sounds cool, but it doesn’t explain or demonstrate anything.
The workplace equivalent of “beat him down on energy” are statements like “work smarter, not harder,” “lift with your legs, not your back,” or worse “be yourself.” To get your point across, you must determine what you want your listener to actually do to be successful and then explain how to execute those specific behaviors. If you don’t define behaviors, you leave it up to the listener to figure out what you meant and their idea might be worlds away from yours.
Fighter pilots use directive-descriptive comm (short for communication) to ensure that excess verbiage doesn’t preclude quick action.
The directive portion of that equation spurs a wingman to execute a maneuver. The descriptive portion fills in the blanks so he knows what to do as a follow-on.
If I spot a surface-to-air missile guiding toward my wingman, I’ll yell at him on the radio to, “Break right!” He doesn’t need to be bothered with the facts about the missile at first. He needs to take evasive action NOW.
Only after his airplane is moving do I add the descriptive details, “SAM, right four o’clock low!” If I start the conversation with a long-winded description of the missile’s flight and location, it might hit him before he even figures out what I want him to do.
If you need someone to do something, lead the conversation with the directive. For instance, “Please call a roofing contractor to come and repair a leak in the office.” Then, if necessary, provide a description: “Every time it rains, water pools in the reception area.” If you try to soften the command by going into a long-winded explanation of the problems caused by the leak, your listener might zone out and miss the point entirely when and if you finally get to it.
These three techniques alone can make all the difference to your mission success.
About the author:
Lt Col Jeff Orr serves as a veteran F-16 instructor pilot for the US Air Force. An expert on high-stress training environments, elite performance, mindset management, and the development of unstoppable organizational cultures, Orr shares his many insights on panels, stages, and in workshops. You can reach him at email@example.com.