Do you know how to avoid being misinterpreted when speaking? Ever had a child, a co-worker, or a friend misquote you?  It can be embarrassing, inefficient, or perhaps hurtful.  Or worse.  Read on to see what you can do to ensure communication success.

What they say you said

This past week is a bittersweet one in the anniversary column.  I grew up in and around America’s space program (I went to elementary school with astronaut’s kids; I saw rockets go up regularly in middle and high school).  It’s a tough part of the calendar to remember in space exploration:

  • January 27, 1967: a fire during a launch pad test killed three astronauts (I went to astronaut namesake Ed White
    Challenger Space Shuttle miscommunication

    Space Shuttle Challenger

    Elementary School for four years)

  • January 28, 1986: the Space Shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds after liftoff and kills all seven on board (astronaut Ellison Onizuka was the guest signer at my middle school yearbook party)
  • February 1, 2003: the Space Shuttle Columbia burns up on re-entry, killing all seven aboard (I have a shuttle tile similar to the one that fell off as part of my personal memorabilia collection)

For my generation, the Challenger accident is the seminal “Where were you?” moment (rivaling JFK’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, or 911 for other generations).  The Challenger accident is particularly poignant for me.  I was there.  It was the first of the 25 to-date launches that I didn’t witness leave the pad — it was too cold to be outside for most Floridians.  When I got word of the circumstances seconds after the explosion, I went outside and watched the Shuttle fall down and Solid Rocket plumes continue their eerie track.  It’s a sight you cannot forget.  Later, as an aerospace engineering student in college, I studied the forces and design of the failed O-ring that caused the accident.

But my continued interest lies in the root cause of the accident, of which science is rarely fingered.  Google will reveal many opinions identifying who to blame.  It has become a classical case study for engineers, statisticians, human factors engineering, risk management, and… communication.

One quote is particularly haunting to anyone who values good messaging.

On the morning of the launch, Thiokol engineer Bob Ebeling told his daughter, “The Challenger’s going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.” It’s a foreboding prediction that haunted him until his death last year.

The blame certainly can’t fall on Mr. Ebeling.  He and his engineer buddies produced no less than 13 charts (this was in the pre-PowerPoint era, for better or for worse) that were faxed to NASA as evidence that the launch should be delayed.  This was Thiokal’s only “delay launch” recommendation in 12 years.  But in the high-pressure crucible of decision-making, the final choice was not the engineers’ to make.  Managers and planners and executives argued into the wee hours of the morning before ultimately giving a confident “Go for launch.”  How can an engineer’s “this isn’t a good idea” end up with “MTI recommends STS-51L launch proceed on 28 January 1986”?

The answer is communication.  The listeners had filters (and ulterior motives, like a launch schedule and a pending contract).  The speakers felt their language (engineering data) was easy to understand, but never translated it to business or risk assessment.  It can happen to us all.

Here are 3 tips on how to avoid being misinterpreted when you speak, whether it’s an idea, a business, an interview, or math lesson.

  1. Find your core message.  Get it down to a single statement.  We tell our students, “If you can’t give your core message in one sentence, you don’t have a message.
  2. Don’t bury the lead.  Data is supporting evidence, not the story.  Make a statement, back it up with your evidence, and restate the conclusion.  Newspapers put their headlines in big letters for a reason.  You should too.
  3. Don’t just present data, interpret it.  We will examine the three data questions in a later newsletter, but suffice it to say that a table of launch temperatures and estimated O-ring data is not compelling enough to a roomful of managers.

As I typed this I was a victim of my own failed communication.  A child’s request to play at the park with friends was given “be home in an hour and fifteen minutes” as a condition to the approval.  When I went to the park to get the wayward child an hour and forty-five minutes later (!), I was told there was some discrepancy in the assumed departure time as well as several communicated options for return time.  Rather than ask for clarification, the receiver of my vague communication departed on a separate agenda and timeline.  I won’t be so vague next time – if there is a next time.

(For a comprehensive analysis of the data discussion leading up to the Challenger decision, I highly recommend Edward Tufte’s book, Visual Explanations.)

This article was published in the February 2017 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.

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