I get no joy out of admitting this, and I certainly mean no disrespect by discussing it publicly, but almost every week I get at least one email that makes no sense to me at all. I feel bad about that, because the person who sent the message almost certainly had something specific in mind. It seems likely they intended to convey an idea that was of importance to them. But they only got half the job done. They sent the email, they just forgot to read it to make sure it actually said what they intended it to before hitting the send button.
Of course poor communication isn’t limited to badly written emails. YouTube is filled with videos of people saying idiotic things, like the congressman who expressed concern that Guam might capsize if it became too densely populated. You might enjoy a stroll through the casual musings of Dan Quayle or Joe Biden, too. If you are unfamiliar with the names, and who could blame you if you were, they are two men who have filled a post only a heartbeat away from the presidency, but who give every indication that their skull is filled primarily with a concoction of oatmeal and helium.
The good news is these videos can be tremendously entertaining – unless the video is of you, of course. The public exposure of a gaffe is almost never something we find flattering or desirable. Especially if you’ve got a class reunion or a job interview coming up in the near future.
That’s the really, truly, unavoidably bad news. Anyone can say something stupid. And you can bet when that day comes you will not be alone out in the middle of the wilderness. It’s far more likely you’ll be giving a presentation in a board room, or on a live microphone, or standing at the front of a church with hundreds of family and friends watching and hanging on every word. You know, the people you love, but you know will never let you live down the embarrassment of the moment – ever.
A good example of how easy it is to fail in the communication department comes from an old Saturday Night Live sketch. The storyline revolves around the last work day of a senior employee at a nuclear power plant who is preparing to retire. As the older man briefs his replacement on the issues he might face in the days to come, the instructions come out as something to the effect of, “You can’t have too much water in the reactor.”
Now that simple sentence might mean one of two things. It might suggest that it’s best to have plenty of water in the reactor. Then again, it might mean that it’s important to limit the amount of water in the reactor – lest something unfortunate occur. So for those keeping score, the count is one sentence, with two meanings that are totally contradictory. In the parlance of the day, that equates to an epic fail.
Oops, that’s not good. Of course the sketch ends with a glowing red ball on the horizon, where the nuclear reactor just melted down. It’s funny when it’s part of a comedy show. The same issue is significantly less funny if you’re the one on the receiving end of a garbled communication that leaves you scratching your head wondering what the point of the message was.
As pilots we all know the importance of a clear, concise, accurate exchange of information. We’re not pilots all the time, however. As individuals we tend to get in a rush and cut our communications short. We mumble, we abbreviate, we wave our hands and attempt short-hand sign language that makes complete sense to us, but is entirely unintelligible to the person we’re gesturing to. Basically, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to the issue of clarity.
I can offer no fool-proof solution to this problem. And if I did you would know I was lying. Regular readers are aware that misspellings and typographical errors creep into my columns from time to time. Not because I’m sloppy or incompetent. No. It’s simply that I’m in a rush. Like you I’m trying to get from one point in my work day to the next, and sometimes I stumble, leaving an errant consonant where a vowel should be. Don’t blame my editor, either. It’s all me. She does yeoman’s work ferreting out all the errors and missteps I leave for her to wade through and correct. We should all be so lucky to have an editor to come along behind us and clean up the mess. Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury, or the budget, to seriously consider hiring one. But we can come close.
Consider the DIY approach. The next time you write to your congressman, a city commissioner, or the solid waste department to complain about the garbage service in your neighborhood, proofread what you write before you lick that envelope, click the send button, or blast off that next text. You will be surprised how often you inadvertently stub your communications toe by describing someone’s work as nonsensical, when you meant to say they were a no nonsense administrator. One is a compliment, the other is not. English is not always mix and match friendly, you know.
It’s a small point, but it might pay big dividends for you in the long run. It’s always worked for me, anyway. Well, proofreading, and having a great editor. But I’m not sharing my editor with you. Just the advice, which is worth exactly what you paid for it. I hape, I hipe, I hope.
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.
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