Editor’s Note: Author Frank J. Mendelson, PRI’s senior account executive and managing editor, has been invited to present a seminar on effective business communication at the American Payroll Association’s 29th Annual Congress in Salt Lake City this week. PRI has a long-standing relationship with APA as well as managing AP Journal Online for their sister organization, the American Accounts Payable Association.
I have been thinking about the nature of urgent communications, and the common elements that contribute to their success. As we understand these elements, we can improve our ability to communicate within our own world of urgent demands.
The U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, and the dramatic arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn while aboard an Air France plane at Kennedy International Airport in New York, each involved urgent communications, where proficiency was mission critical.
The operation in Pakistan required the combination of training, technology, intelligence gathering, contingency planning, on-the spot decision-making, and an unfailing adherence to secrecy. Likewise, the unfolding of events that resulted in leading Strauss-Kahn off the plane and into handcuffs required a series of actions that included targeted inquiry, concise and clear communications, and decisive action.
The dramatic unfolding of these two stories does not diminish the fact that we all experience urgent demands in the course of our work, though usually with less voyeuristic interest across the globe. Our success or failure may not make headlines, and if we fail, there will not be bodies falling from the sky, to paraphrase humorist Sarah Vowell, but others do depend on us; and the cumulative success of our actions may have a material impact on our customers, co-workers, and any other constituency.
The success of urgent communications requires one or more people to act in a leadership role. I would argue that as one becomes a skilled communicator, he or she is developing leadership skills. By examining the quality of what makes an effective urgent communication, we can take the lessons learned and apply them to all communications. Although many are not urgent, they do fall somewhere on a spectrum of urgency.
The goal to be heard and understood is constant; whether it is asking someone to pick up a sandwich order for your lunch, or to provide emergency assistance via first responders to victims of a tornado. Upon reflection, we can identify the elements of success to carry out communications under the umbrella of urgency.
They require the following attributes:
In both cases, an interrogation of some sort required good listening skills to obtain reliable information. As each operation took place, listening skills were required for successful communication with their colleagues and other agencies. The capture of bin Laden required listening skills that began far before the mission was drawn up, and led to the intricate maneuvers and backup plans during the operation itself.
In each event, the ability to communicate without ambiguity was essential. If something was unclear it could have resulted in an abrupt conclusion.
Both situations—as is common to urgent communications—involved critical timing. The ability to communicate with clarity, using no unnecessary words or qualifiers, was essential.
Another element of success in urgent communications is to obtain necessary details—via questions as well as answers. Providing details to the five W’s—who, what, when, where, why, (and how)—keeps communications clear, concise, and leads to decisive action.
Related to listening skills, the ability to ask focused question designed to elicit useful information that results in clear and concise communications is in the toolkit of the skilled communicator.
Knowledge that results in action relies on the preceding list of attributes. It is also a function of skilled training; so that everyone in the communication chain can work with each other, without losing time to second-guess that which they are basing their communications.
Ultimately, decisions must be made. Good communicators make good decisions, as do capable leaders. These decisions do not occur in a vacuum and, in times requiring urgent action, a team can be confident that the exceptional quality of communications provides high-quality decisions.
Working with a team means that a decision can be both decisive and flexible, and subject to change as additional inquiry leads to new knowledge.
Your success in urgent settings is dependent on a series of communications that lead to action with no time to spare. Whether you are tracking down a terrorist, or fulfilling a client’s last minute request before going to press, we can all achieve proficiency in these elements that can lead to ultimate success.