Effective Communication: A Formula For Success

This article was written by our late mentor, Larry Wilson, Founder of Wilson Learning. To learn more about how Larry inspired our business, read our article The Story Behind Above + Beyond.


Leaders need to be great communicators to grab and keep the attention of their followers. It is not an easy task since the natural result of communication is misunderstanding. Odds are you misunderstood what I just said, so, again: “The natural result of communication is misunderstanding.”

Here’s a story to support this point:

A wise engineer had the task of digging a tunnel through a mountain. As his workers were unskilled at the task, he brought them together to explain. “See that mountain over there? Well, you’re going to dig a tunnel through it. Half of you will start digging the tunnel from the east side. The other half will start digging from the west side. When you meet in the middle, you will have dug a tunnel. Now, if you don’t meet in the middle, you will have dug two tunnels.”

The fact is that most communication ends up being separate tunnels. This has brought many a leader to their knees, especially when the stakes are high.

I’m saying this to remind you of how important, and yet difficult, it is to have one-tunnel conversations. So how is it done? Start by agreeing on a mutual definition. In our case, we need to define the word “communication.” We’ll define it as: a sense of mutual understanding.

How do we get others to understand us? Here’s a three-word solution to the two-tunnel trap: simple, familiar and dramatic. Use simple words, familiar examples, and rap up your point by telling a relevant, dramatic story.

Digging deeper: let’s dig a little deeper into our tunnel of understanding— or misunderstanding.

Simple. Use words that everyone understands. Forget the million-dollar words you used to impress your English teacher.

Familiar. Use words that your audience uses on a regular basis. No insider jargon— that just confuses things and ends up excluding people rather than including them.

Dramatic. Tell a brief story or example that parallels the situation you’re trying to communicate. This will help your audience bring the information together into a whole picture, rather than just the parts.

Here’s a non-example of this simple formula. To set the context, you are a new army recruit whose drill instructor (leader) is introducing you to a new safety device. Let’s listen in:

“Alright you people! Today is the day we introduce the new regulation missile whistle, model M-1. This is a self-repeating, lung-operated, air-cooled general personnel model issued to all relevant ranks. The whistle is divided into two component parts: the whistle cylinder blowing assembly, and, the whistle retaining chain assembly mechanism. At the blowing aperture, there are two raised sections. You people in the back had better stand up so you can see this. The opening from the blowing end into the main cylinder is called the compression blow channel. The other remaining component part of the whistle is known as the chamber operating assembly complex. This consists of the opening sound admission slot, the cylinder butt lock onto which the whistle retaining chain assembly part is attached, and the cylinder reverberating operating cork pellet device.”

Whew! How many tunnels do you think were dug in that mountain?!

Let’s look at what happens if we apply our “simple, familiar and dramatic” formula to this scenario?

The drill instructor might sound something like this:

“Okay folks, this here is a whistle. When you blow into it, it makes a very loud noise. If you ever find yourself pinned down in a foxhole, bullets whizzing over your head in every direction, take out this little jewel and blow like hell. We’ll come and get you out.”

Now that’s a message anyone could understand. Simple, familiar words put together in a dramatic sequence that keeps everyone digging the same tunnel.

Here’s a learning process that can help you keep getting better at making sure everyone is digging one tunnel. Ask yourself these three questions:

–       What did I plan to say?

–       What did I say?

–       What will I say next time in the same situation?

These three questions will help you become a more effective communicator. This kind of practice helps you get better on purpose, and that’s what turns a good leader into a great leader!

Develop a common language to improve collaboration and communication within your team with our Play to Win workshops! For more information, click here.