The mechanics of explicit communication at meetings

explicit communicationLast week I shared five ways explicit communication improves meetings. If we lived in a world where sharing a clear message guaranteed that every recipient received it and took it to heart—well, our lives would be a lot less complicated.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. So here’s a guide to explicit communication mechanics that increase the likelihood that people receive and act on your messages.

Explicit communication mechanics summary

To maximize the likelihood that people receive and act on a message you send:

  • Determine the best communication channel(s)
  • Choose the best time(s) to communicate
  • Make sure your message is clear
  • Find out whether your message has been received
  • Repeat messages appropriately.

Determine the best communications channel(s)

Think about the best channel(s) to communicate your message. Here are some examples.

  • You have important information to convey to attendees, presenters, or exhibitors before an event. You might use email, bulk texting, in-app messaging, website updates, or even social media.
  • You’re an emcee on stage and you need to remind folks about the time and place of the evening social. You’ll probably speak to your audience. (But perhaps you’ll sing, or use physical comedy!)
  • The meeting schedule changes mid-event. You might use electronic signage, app push messaging, or hallway announcements to let people know.

Before you choose from available channels, consider timing and repeat messaging factors, as described below.

Choose the best time(s) to communicate

A mistake I’ve made more than once is to try to share information at the end of a session while people are starting to leave. Typically I’ll indicate that the session is over and then remember there’s an announcement I forgot to make. Unfortunately, listening to me becomes a low priority when attendees have already turned their attention to standing up and thinking about where they’ll go next.

To maximize explicit communication in such circumstances, what I try to remember to do is:

  • Preparing recipients to receive a message makes it more likely they’ll receive it. So, prepare attendees at the start of the session. (“At the end of this session I have an important announcement about XYZ.“).
  • Make a clear statement right at the end of the session. (“We’re going to wrap up, but first please listen carefully to this important announcement…“)

Part of a communications plan, therefore, includes choosing the best times to prep folks for receiving and then delivering your messages.

Having a plan is important, but not necessarily sufficient. You also need to monitor the real-time environment and be prepared to alter your plan. As a facilitator I sometimes change the processes I’m using to meet uncovered participants’ needs. Or a portion of a session may take more or less time than expected. When such things happen, you may need to change the timing of your communications on the fly.

Make sure your message is clear

Obviously, if people don’t understand your message your communication will fail. Whenever possible, test the clarity of a message in advance. For example, I try to test instructions I’ve developed for new group work processes with a small group before using them with 600 people. And don’t forget that messaging isn’t restricted to verbal communication. I remember a maze-like conference center that had a totally inadequate printed floor plan. Even though I spent the day before the event familiarizing myself with the layout, I still had a hard time figuring out how to get from one room to the next. Not surprisingly, many attendees got lost and were late for sessions during the meeting.

In addition, to make sure your message is clear, check for understanding right after delivering it. Saying “are there any questions?” and giving people enough time to respond before continuing is the least you should do. For maximal communication use Ask, Tell, Ask, where you ask what questions people have, share your answers, and then ask what they understand.

Find out whether your message has been received

One of the best improv exercises I’ve done really brought home the importance of checking whether people have received a message. In 2016, I played the game “You” at a five-day improv retreat held by Mindful Play, Playful Mind. Here’s what I wrote about playing “You”, though, like all improv, you have to experience the game to fully get its point.

What the game vividly illustrates is that you have to get people’s full attention before you send a message, and then check with them to make sure they’ve received it. Make sure you do this!

Repeat messages appropriately

Finally, remember that repeating messages appropriately increases the likelihood people will receive and absorb them. Despite your best efforts, there are countless reasons why folks may miss a message. A potential recipient might be immersed in a side conversation, worrying about a family situation, on a bathroom break, etc. Repeating messages, especially important ones, makes it more likely people will hear or seen and act on them.

How often to repeat a message depends on its importance, the environment, and the level of attention at the moment you share it. There’s no right answer. Some people are great at receiving messages; some need to be hit over the head with a stick. In general, it’s better to repeat a message a little too often (with the risk of annoying some) rather than not enough (with the risk that many won’t receive it.)

If available, use multiple channels for your messages. For example, communicate a schedule change with session announcements, in-app messages, and meeting signage. People will generally understand your desire to get the message out in various ways, and it’s more likely people will receive it successfully.

You can’t please everyone

You can’t please everyone. However well you fashion and deliver your explicit communication, some people won’t get the message or act on it. (It’s sobering that despite media saturation of the message that voting is important, about a third of registered U.S. voters don’t vote.)

Nevertheless, maximizing the likelihood that people will receive and act on your messages at meetings is important. I hope that this post gives you some ideas for improving communications at your meetings.

Do you know other ways to improve explicit communication at meetings? Share them in the comments below!

Lessons From Improv: Make Sure Your Meeting Messages Are Received

meeting messages receivedMake Sure Your Meeting Messages Are Received!

Want to improve the learning at your meetings? Make sure your meeting messages are received. That’s what I learned from You. No, not you — “You“!


You is a delightful improv game I played at the Mindful Play, Playful Mind retreat in Mere Point, Maine. Players stand in a circle and the first player points to someone and says “You”. The pointed-to player does the same by pointing to someone else until the last person has pointed back to the 1st person, creating a pattern. The pattern is practiced a few times until everyone has it … and then another pattern is created, using names of a class of common objects such as junk food, or birds, or colors, etc. Once the players have got that pattern down … well, let’s run both patterns simultaneously! Then let’s start doing things like adding another pattern, changing places in the circle with the “next” player…

As the game gets more complicated, it becomes an exercise in concentration and dealing with potential chaos. You have to figure out how to deal with unexpected situations. An example? Two people point to you simultaneously with a pattern while you’re trying to pass a third pattern to someone else. It’s challenging — and a lot of fun!

Learning from a debrief

After you play a game at an improv workshop, it’s time for a debrief. So we held one in between adding further complexities to “You”. Then we worked on incorporating our incremental learning into the next round.

What did we learn?

We discovered that when we were playing with multiple patterns going round the circle, the game fell apart. This happened when we incorrectly believed we had passed on a pattern to the next person and mistakenly turned our attention back to the circle to deal with the next pattern passed to us. It’s easy to point to the pattern’s next recipient, then hear another pattern that you have to respond to and fail to make sure that the pattern you’re passing has been successfully received. This only has to happen once for a pattern to stop going round the circle.

We realized that when we got caught up in the excitement and high-attention needs of a complex game, we played too quickly to reliably pass on pattern messages to the next person in the sequence, leading to dropped patterns.

Switch the focus!

To play the game reliably we needed to switch our focus from frantically keeping up to making sure that our pattern message for the next person was received. We had to wait until our desired receiver was giving us their full attention. Then we could pass the pattern and check visually that they had received it. Then we’d turn our attention back to receiving patterns from others in the group.

The beauty of this focus switch was that if everyone did it, the game automatically slowed down as needed to successfully deal with complex or new situations. For example, if Mohamed & Juanita both wanted to send me a pattern while I was supposed to send one to Laurie, I would wait until Laurie was free to receive my pattern before turning my attention to Mohamed & Juanita. Mohamed & Juanita would see that I was occupied and wait until I had successfully sent Laurie my pattern, whereupon one of them would get my attention while the other waited until I was finally free.

If you didn’t carefully read the previous paragraph with full understanding, I forgive you. It’s much easier to experience how this focus switch works than to explain it.

The Lesson. You’ve gotta ask! Twice!

Ever had someone tell you something and you don’t understand what they said? Duh! Of course you have! When this happens, the obvious thing to do is to ask them to explain. Do we always do that? No! In Conferences That Work I tell the story of how an entire class of graduate students (including me) stopped understanding our math professor halfway through the semester, and none of us ever informed him we were lost. What a waste of everyone’s time!

When you teach it’s important to provide clear understandable information. When you facilitate or lead a group, it’s important to provide clear process instructions. But regardless of how “good” you are at this, there is no guarantee that your message has been received completely or correctly.

And so to our lesson:

To teach or facilitate effectively, check early and often that what we are saying has been received and understood. When we use the ask, tell, ask model of participative learning, the second ask — the follow-up check for reception and understanding — is the one that’s all too easy to omit.

In other words: Make sure your meeting messages are received!

When we improv players made sure that our pattern passes had been received, we were amazed at how complex a game of “You” we could successfully play. In the same way, faithfully using all three steps of the ask, tell, ask model allows us to check that our teaching and facilitation as been received and understood, allowing us to create complex and successful active learning at our meetings.