Talk Like a Pilot …

Pilots have a saying: “always be cool on the radio.”

It’s drilled deep into the culture from the very beginning of training, and the meaning is clear: no matter how out of control things feel, the push-to-talk button is always under your control, and you’d better be in control every time you touch it.

I think about this a lot, particularly in the context of crisis communications (including public debates) within on-the-ground organizations. And I think there are at least three things we could learn from aviation conventions:

First, be in control of what you transmit publicly. You can say what you want over the closed-circuit intercom, but every radio transmission from “good day” to “mayday” should be calmly professional. As most of us have learned the hard way at one point or another, what you text your co-workers is much different that what you put in the company-wide email.

Second, know and follow convention — even when you improvise within the form. All calls start the same way: “Recipient, this is caller. Here’s my information.” All get a readback to ensure understanding: “Caller, recipient: I copy your information and request you do this next.” And, in one of my favorite conventions, all end with “good day:” the airline industry’s equivalent of the military’s crisper but colder “out.” Like jazz, the shared format keeps everyone together yet also allows some artistic license: some pilots go to great lengths to convey the other meaning of “cool” on the radio, with well-practiced cadences that leave no doubt that the speaker flies really big jets (or wants to sound like he does).

Third, professional courtesy isn’t mutually exclusive of critique or directness. If you listen to the controllers at busy airports, you’ll hear them get frustrated and bossy like anyone else — and yet they’ll almost never fail to address people as “sir” or “ma’am,” or to end with the “good day” signifier, even when they’re essentially yelling at them. Think about the last time you or someone you know either failed to speak up when something was going wrong or really did yell at someone without the equivalent of a “good day” to remind them that, at the end of the day, you’re both on the same team.

Beyond specifics, though, the really powerful lesson in “always be cool on the radio” is that it takes and makes a culture. Pilots can summon superhuman cool under crisis because they know there will be cultural consequences if they don’t, and each person who keeps her cool under pressure adds to the community standard.

Every time you communicate, it’s worth asking:

  • Who’s going to hear this?
  • What’s the accepted format for what I have to say? How will I deliver my message in a way that’s both instantly understandable (thanks to convention) and recognizably personal (thanks to a little improvisation)?
  • What are they going to learn from what I say, and what are they going to learn from how I say it?

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