I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately (actually sitting on an American flight to Chicago as I write), and I’m finding the airlines have some serious work to do in their communications.
Let’s start with the behavioral side (the part that we hear and see as someone is speaking to us):
The pilot came on the PA system to give an update on our delay. In what was possibly the worst monotone voice I’ve EVER heard (keep in mind that I hear a lot of them), he explained:
“Um, there was a, um, delay due to, um, bad, um, weather in Chicago, um. [Insert long, painful pause] Um, we, uh should be um, pulling away from the uh, gate, in about um, five minutes.”
I wish I could say I was exaggerating. I overheard the couple next to me saying that he sounded like he was falling asleep in the middle of his announcement. Awesome – a narcoleptic pilot. Perfect for a cross-country flight.
And on the content side (the words we say):
Flight status updates are basic — and brief. Why should there ever be an abstraction in them? These announcements talk about low acceptance rates and flow control. How does that help me understand why I won’t be home in time to tuck my kids into bed? It’s simple. The pilots are cursed by their own knowledge.
Yes, we passengers want details and an explanation for what happened, but please speak in plain English. I have no clue what a low acceptance rate is. One flight attendant on another recent flight finally spoke up, “SFO usually operates two different runways, but they had to close one of them due to the nasty rain. Now they can’t land as many planes, things are backed up and we just have to wait our turn.” Ok, I get it now. Thanks for the translation.
We’re a lot like these pilots. Many of us don’t consider ourselves to be public speakers. But we’re ALWAYS public speaking (there’s really not much private speaking going on). If you’ve got a high-stakes presentation, you probably work pretty hard at both what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. But those are rare moments. How are you working on your daily communications? In your one-on-ones, staff meetings, on a conference call, and even over the PA system.
Time for a self-check: how do you come across on a conference call?
The good news is that you can always be practicing. Pros are always in school, constantly working to get better. Get feedback (an audio recorder and/or a trusted colleague work great) and start tweaking and testing.
[Note that Southwest, Jet Blue and Virgin America are far better in these interactions – primarily because they make them conversational, both in behavior and content. They don’t fill them with jargon. Rather, they just tell it like it is, and have fun with it too – a little of that goes a long way on the tarmac.]