You get two volunteers, one at the whiteboard, one person sitting in a chair giving instructions. The person at the whiteboard can only look at the board. He or she cannot turn around and look at the instructor. The instructor is given a picture with shapes on it and then must instruct the person at the board to draw those shapes.
In the first scenario, both parties can talk to each other. The instructor can also see what is being drawn. The end result is usually quite good because of the immediate feedback between both parties.
We then do a second scenario with two new volunteers. In this scenario, they can still both talk, but the instructor has to turn away so that he or she cannot see the person drawing. The end result depends on the skill of the instructor, but also on the communication between the two. The more often the person drawing asks questions to clarify, the better their results.
The third scenario is the fun one. In this scenario, not only are they facing away from each other, the person drawing is no longer able to speak. The instructor has to hope he has given clear enough instructions that the drawer can complete the task. Often I have seen unfinished pictures because the instructor moved on to a second instruction before the first was completed.
The three scenarios represent three of the more common forms of communication.
In face-to-face communication, you get both verbal and non-verbal feedback. You can see when there is confusion on someone’s face. You can see if the information makes someone feel uncomfortable or awkward. You get confirmation when people understand.
Obviously it is the best form of communication because of the clarity it brings, and therefore the reason why managers insist so often on having meetings for the sole purpose of sharing information.
The downside is the time it takes to plan the meeting, get everyone in the same room at the same time, and the disruption it causes in their workdays.
Yet, when you have a complex topic where it is critical that everyone understands the information thoroughly and without question, face-to-face is your best option. Just be sure to build into the meeting some time for feedback to make sure everyone understands and is on the same page.
Phone calls are only as effective for getting information across as the person on the other end of the line is effective at asking the right questions for clarity. If you are using such a method for passing along information, ask the other person to repeat back what you said. If you are receiving information this way, repeat back what the other person said.
The upside to phone calls is that people don’t have to be in the same room to share information. If you have information that is relatively simple, and you have good communication skills, you can share that info much more easily via phone than by requiring a meeting.
Email has both the largest pros and cons of the three.
One huge upside to email is that you have a written copy of the instructions that people can reference as often as needed. No matter how many cooking shows you watch, if you don’t write down the recipe, you’ll have a hard time recalling it exactly when you finally get into the kitchen.
Another upside to email is that the recipients can read it at their own convenience. It helps them manage their time more wisely and gives them more flexibility in their schedule.
The downside is obvious. The instructions and information have to be exact, clear, and concise because you have no immediate feedback if there are questions. You also have to write so that there are no misinterpretations.
This form of communication takes practice, diligence, and skill.
I did the drawing exercise with a company once. For the first scenario I had two employees volunteer. For the second scenario, the owner of the company gave the instructions while an employee drew the picture. For the third scenario the owner’s right-hand gal and manager gave the instructions while the owner drew the picture.
The results were an eye-opener. While the first group did great, the second group with the owner giving directions didn’t go well at all. First, the employee was intimidated and afraid to ask questions for clarity. Second, the owner wasn’t very good at giving directions in the first place. We covered a lot of ground learning about roles in the workplace out of that exercise. The third group, however, also opened a lot of eyes. The manager was able to describe the picture to her boss in perfect, clear detail. The end result was actually closer to the original picture than the first group’s result.
The owner realized right then and there that he would have his manager do all email communication and that he would stick to having face-to-face time with her to get his ideas across. Lesson learned.
One last thing …
As Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
If you decide your information must be shared face-to-face, find a way to do more than just talk at your team. Find a fun and interesting way to share the information. First, your team will be more enthused to listen. Second, you’ll deepen their understanding.
But when you learn to write clearly and concisely, do your team a favor and send them an email.
PS Since we didn’t use email as a communication tool at Toy House, I used to post notices in our employee lounge. Unfortunately, I found out that not everyone used the lounge. I had to tell two of my team members to go read the notices every time I posted something new. Lesson learned.
PPS Yes, I still do corporate and youth team building exercises. Give me a shout to discuss your needs.
PPPS If you manage people for a living, the more you know about team building, the better your team will be. It doesn’t “just happen”, it needs to be cultivated. You can start by reading this Free Resource – Team Building 101: The Basics.