The art of the audible Making sure your voice is heard


Dice right, Ice Cream, Alert, 654 Jose, on nothing.  That is a call that NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, calls in the huddle.  Each word or phrase was important to one particular group on the offense.  receivers, lineman, running backs, and Peyton all had to know where to go, what to do, and how the play is going to go off.  Not that tricky, listen to your phrase, execute your assignment, and depend on the fact that everyone else will do the same thing.  But Peyton Manning didn’t become Peyton Manning by just drawing up a play and then running it.  He would call the play, get to the line of scrimmage, see what he was up against and then change things up calling an audible.

An audible is the adjustment the quarterback makes to change the play.  A run now becomes a pass.  A long pass becomes a screen, a slant becomes a run, etc. etc.  The man in charge wants things to go different and needs to get the word out to everybody.  If everyone doesn’t hear and get on board, the play is not going to be a success and has potentially tough consequences.

Communication is probably the most important thing we can do in a business, in a classroom, in life.  If the communication is not in place, the person leading the task is going to be frustrated and more than likely not be successful.  The best play or idea is doomed to fail if word doesn’t get out quickly and accurately.

Keeping communication clear

So how does communication happen? Peyton looks to himself as to the person responsible for the communication.  He changes the plays, makes eye contact with the receivers to check for understanding, turns and points to the players in the backfield and looks for a nod, and then runs back and forth behind the line making sure that he is clear in what they are going to do.  Once he is confident everyone knows their assignment, the play goes on.  “If somebody doesn’t hear, I really feel responsible” he shares in a great video on the audible ( Peyton knows the team, the fans, and even his livelihood is dependent on everyone knowing what is going on.

What happens when that communication is not clear?  God knows we think we are clear.  We know what we mean to say, but is that what our audience hears?  Too often we stumble around and blame the people we are talking to for not listening.  In a classroom setting, the “sit and get” style of communication is tough.  Kids want to be engaged and discuss.  See things in context and experience them hands on.  The biology lab, the wood shop, the PE gym are the areas where students excel and are interested.  Similarly, the seminar, the board meeting, and the endless PowerPoint presentation can be just as arduous as we remember boring lectures in school as being.

Case in point, a friend of mine was recently sharing a problem he was having with his team at work.  He is in banking and they were implementing a new system for the branches to input auto loans.  He said that they had several eight hour days of training, gone over it step by step, and by the end of the training he was confident they had covered everything the branches needed to know to be successful.  As soon as the new system went live, chaos ensued.  The same managers that left the meeting with marked up 2 inch binders of procedures and handouts of the colossal PowerPoints were melting down the phone lines acting as if they had never seen the new system in their lives.

When I asked my friend why the rollout had been so rusty, his answer was pretty typical, “They are idiots” he snarked.  Not too uncommon to blame the student for not learning.  He knew the material and he was sure that he had communicated to them exactly what they needed to know.  I asked him a pretty simple question, “Did they hear you?”  “Absolutely!”  He replied.  “I know this because I stopped several times and asked ‘Any questions?’ and there never was.  They had to have heard me.”  It is a pretty common problem.  We talk, they listen.  We present, they learn.  It looks so good on paper, but rarely is that simple.  If Peyton Manning just assumed everyone heard him without checking, he would be picking himself up off the ground after every play.

So how do we know if our message is heard?  It makes no difference if you are in a meeting, teaching a class, or even giving directions to your kids, you want to know that they heard you.  The simplest trick is to just ask them to repeat back what you just said.  In the movie “Philadelphia” Denzel Washington’s lawyer character asked the people who he was questioning to “explain it to me like I’m a six-year-old”, but it doesn’t need to be a scripted.  Just getting the person you are talking to, to acknowledge they got the message can be enough to guarantee it is okay to move on.

The Big Picture

red_diesel_train_hiIt is always helpful though for the people to know how it fits; the “Big Picture”.  I had a boss who’s favorite saying was “Get on board”.  This is a great metaphor, a grand train headed for the promised land.  But the problem often was before he could get people on his train, he needed to tell everyone where they were going.  A road trip can be a great time, but eventually we need to get somewhere.  “Get on the train or get off” can be a rallying cry to get people together and focused on the destination.  A classy way of saying “stop complaining and let’s go”.  Well this can be a good saying to squelch dissent, but there is a small problem.  If people don’t know where the train is going, why would anyone get on.

In the classroom, we would talk all the time about the “big picture”, the overarching goal we are trying to accomplish.  Teachers work with students to try and accomplish the little tasks along the way to eventually get to the big assessment at the end.  It is no secret, if the kids know where they going, they are much more likely to do the tasks along the way as a means of reaching an end.  As an evaluator, I developed three simple questions I would ask the students as a means of seeing if the teacher was communicating her objective well or not.  Those questions were

  1. What are you doing?
  2. Why are you doing it?
  3. How will you show the teacher that you learned it?

The first question dealt with the immediate task, what they are doing that day.  If a kid could tell me what they were doing, I knew that they were motivated and moving.  The next question, “Why are you doing it?” hit onto the big picture.  Did the student know how what they are doing was setting the pace for some grander learning?  Essentially, did they know where the train was headed.  The last question, “How will you show the teacher you learned it?” let me know that the student could see not just what they were doing, but also how it would be judged.  Essentially, did they know what they had to do that day to be successful?

In a classroom, if a student could answer those questions it was obvious that that teacher not only was a strong communicator, but those kids were on the right path to success.  But what about in the business world, does the same thing hold true? Is it important for the team member to see the methodology behind the change?  You bet it is.  Letting the team know the reason behind the change is a great way to get them engaged, create buy-in, and eliminate excuses.  They may quibble about the reason for the change, but if they see the problem it is meant to address they are happier to hop on board.

Nobody disputes the need to be heard.  The biggest problem we have is in guaranteeing that our message got across.  If we spent more time double checking, running up and down the line so to speak, we could rest easier.  It saves time, makes the journey more enjoyable, and gets everyone on the train.  All aboard!

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