Can it ever be ok to treat your colleagues like 6 year olds?

A friend of mine once shared with me a parenting tip he claimed had hugely improved his sanity and temper.  After years of delivering a running commentary of advice and instructions to a young son who seemed to be wilfully ignoring him, he was offered the secret to successful communication with the under 6s.  A former teacher, observing a drawn out stand off over a request to come in for dinner, glibly commented that whenever communicating with a young child, try to imagine they have the theme tune to Magic Roundabout running on a continuous loop in their head.

The Magic Roundabout method of communication

The Magic Roundabout method of communication

This one, jewel encrusted, nugget of wisdom changed the way he spoke to his son. Instructions were delivered as clearly and directly as possible.  No word wasted, no possibility of ambiguity.  He realised his son wasn't ignoring him, there was just so much else going on in his head, all far more interesting than explanations about why it was necessary to clean his teeth. Bingo - he succeeded in making his job as a dad just a little bit easier. 

The thing is, after plenty of years working as a consultant and facilitator, I've become convinced none of us are really so different from our six-year-old selves.  There's a lot of clutter in our heads and communication needs to be precise and clear to cut through.

We're pretty good at straight talking with friends and family, but at work language can become vague at best ... in many cases almost incomprehensible.  We all laugh at the idea of business speak but it still thrives in most work environments.  Here are my 3 tips to get people to listen to you at work by adopting the 'Magic Roundabout' method of communication.

Use simple language

In one of my first jobs as a consultant, I was asked to work on a project to improve creativity and collaboration in a team.  I sat down with my client, who was to explain to me how the team currently worked and what she hoped I could achieve.  After she'd spoken for about 10 minutes, my heart was racing nervously. Not only could I not figure out what she wanted me to do (it seemed so very complex), I also couldn't make any sense of how the team worked or what they even did.  In desperation I spoke out loud the words tumbling through my head ... "what do you mean?" The client must have been so stunned by my audacity or apparent stupidity that she told me in two sentences what was needed: 

The team had become bogged down with bad habits and recent redundancies had made many of them become insecure and defensive.  Could I watch how they worked and find a way to make them share ideas, be more bold and look more positively to the future.  

My dumb question had made her get to the heart of the issue, rather than cluttering it with unnecessary detail and mannered language.  After that experience I was never afraid to ask "what do you mean?"  It makes people think clearly and stop hiding behind big words.

Be crystal clear when you're giving instructions

"Let's create a really engaging newsletter
"We need to make sure this event really makes an impact"
"We should take a more collaborative approach to projects"

All of these goals seem sensible and straightforward on the surface but when it comes to taking action the language suddenly seems way too woolly.  Who would write a newsletter that wasn't "engaging"? Any event should make an impact. What is a "collaborative approach"? None of those goals inspire action because they're bland and unfocussed and the language is lazy.  Being specific helps people get on with the job.  One good question to ask yourselves when you set goals is "what do I want to happen in the end?"  Be literal and quite focussed when you consider this question, then set your goals. 

"Let's create a newsletter that staff look forward to receiving and that makes people want to talk back to us"
"We need to make sure this event makes people think of our brand in a completely new way"
"Let's find a way to make sure that everybody works with people outside of their immediate team for at least 25 per cent of their time."

Far clearer and more appealing challenges.


Tell stories

Children love stories and they don't stop loving them when they grow up.  Stories are how we make sense of the world; they inspire us, help us understand the unfamiliar and educate us.  So don't stop telling stories just because you're at work.  

I sometimes find people oddly resistant to the idea of trying to entertain others in a business context.  I've had someone solemnly tell me they had to make their presentation stodgy and overlong because "that's what we all do".  When I asked if he ever remembered, or even really ever listened to others' presentations he said "no" ... go figure.  I've also known thousands to be spent on annual reports that are distributed at great cost but nobody ever reads.  Could a few carefully selected stories not be the key to getting people to actually open the front cover?

If you want your colleagues to feel as passionately as you do about a project, tell them a story of how your business might look at the end of it.  Use stories about competitors or about your customers to put fire in bellies.  Make stories up to help people imagine the future.  Facts and figures are important for sure, but stories grab attention and leave a lasting impression.  If you have a message you need to get across, ask yourself "what story can I tell to help this message stick?"

So, is it ever OK to treat your colleague like a six year old?

Six-year-old minds are mercurial so we use charm, fun and straight talking to get their focus.  Our minds are pretty lively too though, we've got a lot to think about on any one day.  We may not have the Magic Roundabout in our heads any more, but there'll be some other noise up there whirring round and round, so why not apply the same effort to make our messages cut through? 

I'd love your comments on the blog and if you've got any cracking stories about communication crimes or brilliant ways to get your message across, please do share.  Every job we do at Leading Ideas, we learn a little more about how to make communication as clean and stimulating as possible and your contributions can make the picture even clearer.