Loud and Clear: A Red Button Technique for Effective Communication

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Editing your own podcast is a dangerous task. One’s mind begins anticipating every impending “um,” and “ah” and then fumbles over every verbal crutch and filler. They are like little potholes on the road to rhetorical Valhalla.

You don’t need to edit your own podcast .. I wanted to do it because I wanted to be a better podcaster, and to face my mistakes as the fastest and most effective way to improve.

Podcast hosting requires fundamental skills in verbal communication. These include listening without interrupting, asking the right questions, and knowing when to bring the conversation back into focus. Podcasting is more than just using filler words. It involves becoming a better communicator, which is a much more difficult task than avoiding stray “ums” and “ahs. “

In working through how to become a more effective communicator, I’ve come to rely on what I like to call “The Red Button Technique” – a rubric developed from my experience and training as an aviator.

Related: 14 Proven Ways to Improve Your Communication Skills

The Red Button Technique

As a student pilot, I found myself at the intersection of a very stressful but exciting time of my life. Tammy Jo Shults was my podcast host, and I was also training for my instrument flight rules exam (IFR). Shults is a former Navy aviator and combat pilot who rose to fame in 2018 as a pilot of Southwest Airlines. While piloting Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, Shults was forced to bring 183 people safely back to Earth after an engine exploded without warning, puncturing the fuselage and sucking a passenger out to their death. While editing my podcast interview of Shults, and listening to her unfaltering exchange with air traffic control (ATC), on that fateful day Shults was forced to bring people safely back home.

In IFR you fly blind to anything outside your cockpit. This is how pilots fly through low-visibility conditions such as storms, clouds, and storms. IFR is a pilot’s ability to navigate only with radio traffic with Air Traffic Control (ATC), and four basic instruments onboard: heading indicator, attitude indicator, speed indicator, altimeter, and airspeed indicator.

In such difficult conditions, pilots need a lot of input from ATC. IFR requires a lot of radio calls, to put it mildly. Everything happens very quickly and there is no room for mumbling, tripping on words or verbal crutches. Some pilots are so scared of IFR radio communications that they refuse to fly IFR even after getting their licenses.

Mic Fright is a common fear among new pilots, regardless of whether they are training for IFR. Being clear and precise isn’t easy while you’re simultaneously trying to remember fresh information, battle performance anxiety and avoid fixating on the consequences of a potentially fatal mistake.

Turns out, that’s exactly what was happening to me during my podcast interviews. Things were moving quickly and I wasn’t prepared for what was ahead. This had to change. I wanted to bring the same assertiveness and precision that I found on the flight deck into the recording room — and into every other aspect of my life.

I also realized that I could be a better podcaster and conversationalist if I approached everyday communication in the same way I approach IFR radio communications.

After analyzing how I operated in the air versus on the ground, I identified three touchstones of effective communication: listening, practicing and thinking. These three principles were then organized into a system I call “The Red Button Technique”, after the push-to talk (PTT) switch pilots use for communication with ATC.

Related: Effective Communication Begins With This Radical First Step

Step 1: Listen

Aircraft radios operate in half-duplex mode — meaning that both parties share the same frequency, but only one party can transmit at a time, forcing users to take turns talking. You won’t be heard by anyone else if you press the red button to speak. This forces you to not only listen and wait for your turn, but also to make the most of your speaking time.

In life outside of the cockpit, there is no such physical check. Full-duplex mode is used for communications: All parties can simultaneously transmit and interrupt each other. We, therefore, must all make a conscious effort to balance speaking with listening and know when to press and release our rhetorical red buttons.

If we all talk, nobody listens. Knowing when to stop speaking is as important as knowing what you should say. Interrupting or ignoring others can have fatal consequences in the sky. It can destroy relationships and cause a loss of trust.

Step 2: Practice

Hundreds of training hours have taught me how to speak like a pilot, along with which words and phrases I can expect to hear in the air. I practice what to say in every situation while flying. This is difficult to do outside of the confines of an airplane. There is no list of phrases that one could expect to hear in everyday conversation, and no instructor to point out errors or areas for improvement.

To help myself, I made editing my podcast an experiment in self-correction. I began by noting every word I was using and realized that I needed to stop using the words “right”. I looked deeper and compared myself to other interviewers. Is my quality comparable to theirs? Similar to what we do in flight school. I prepared for emergencies by practicing what I could say if speakers stumble or interviews hit rough patches.

During this process I realized that preparing for conversations does not mean practicing every word you will say. This is just like when you fly. It’s about setting a goal that will guide each interaction. As a podcaster and person, I decided that my primary goal would be to learn and help the other party shine. Every word I speak will be directed towards creating opportunities for others and sharing their stories.

Related: The Cost of Ineffective Communication and How to Improve

Step 3: Think

Aviation thrives on brevity and precision. Every word counts because every second matters. Communication with ATC can be a precious resource. Attention is a scarce resource outside of the cockpit. It is important to gather your thoughts before you speak. You need to be confident about what you are going to say when it is your turn to press the red button.

Thoughtful words are tied to thoughtful listening. We listen to the air in order to develop situational awareness. Situational awareness helps us to understand the world around us and predict what might happen next. The more information we have, we can better assess the present and predict the future. Active listening is a skill that allows you to understand the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and why they are saying them. You’ll never be lost for words once you have a clear picture of your interlocutor.

Thinking before you speak is not only about organizing what you’re going to say, but also about analyzing the potential effects of those words. They will they be helpful in moving the conversation forward? Could they make the other person feel uncomfortable or upset? What are they saying?

Confidence is communicated through well-thought words. Listening, practicing and thinking helps you lead deeper conversations and create more meaningful connections — no matter the scenario.

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