Leadership Lessons at 10,000 Feet

phoneIf you have flown anytime in the last several years you have heard some version of this announcement:

At this time, we request that all mobile phones, pagers, radios, and remote controlled toys be turned off for the full duration of the flight, as these items might interfere with the navigational and communication equipment on this aircraft. We request that all other electronic devices including laptops, Game boys, CD players, Mp3 players, tablets, e-readers be turned off until we fly above 10,000 feet. We will notify you when it is safe to use such devices.

More recently there are typically at least two other announcements about turning off phone devices before the doors close, and there is another announcement about turning them off as the plane moves into its final approach for landing.

The message is pretty clear – they don’t want us to have these items on, except above 10,000 feet.

A study released on 5/9/13 by Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) found that 99% of flyers carried at least one of these devices with them onboard. Further, and to the point of this post, the study found that,

“Almost one-third (30 percent) of passengers report they have accidentally left a PED turned on during a flight. The study found that when asked to turn off their electronic devices, 59 percent of passengers say they always turn their devices completely off, 21 percent of passengers say they switch their devices to “airplane mode,” and five percent say they sometimes turn their devices completely off. Of those passengers who accidentally left their PED turned on in-flight, 61 percent said the device was a smartphone.” (Emphasis is mine and you can read the full press release on the study here.)

We were told several times, yet nearly a third of us forgot, ignored it, or didn’t really hear it at all.

This is a big, obvious reminder that successful communication requires more than a good script and a clear message. Communication only really occurs when the message is received.

The Lessons for Us as Leaders and Communicators

There may be others, but here are some key reminders this example gave me.

Repetition alone isn’t enough. How many times have you said (out loud or to yourself) “How many times do I have to tell them?” Repetition does help make communication stick, but our experience (and this study) tells us that it isn’t enough. Remember that repetition of important ideas should always be in your communications repertoire – the goal is to give a consistent message without being repetitious.

Attention is hard to get. The next time you fly (or if you don’t fly much ask someone who does), notice how little attention is paid to the flight attendants during all of their announcements. When you see all of the conversations and multi-tasking that is happening as the make their announcements it isn’t hard to believe that 30% of people don’t follow the guidelines. What are you doing to earn the attention of those you are communicating with?

A well prepared message isn’t enough. The script is clear, the instructions are easy to follow. The script has been practiced, and the speaker is confident of the words, yet communication isn’t occurring. How much of that could be said about your last presentation? Prepare, but realize that in the end it is about the audience as much as the message itself.

Engagement is required. The flight attendants efforts are doomed because they haven’t really engaged most people. True communication can’t happen until there is engagement. If you have flown a lot you have perhaps encountered a flight attendant who does the announcements differently – they get the message through and create both attention and engagement with humor or in some other way. I have been on flights where passengers did stop reading to listen – and I’ve even heard chuckles and comments about the messages. While I can’t prove it, I’d bet more smartphones are turned off on those flights. What are you doing to truly engage your audiences, to captivate them and to make them a part of the communication and the message?

There are more lessons you can take from this study, but if you take at least one of these to heart and apply it in your communications, you will be more successful. Put up your tray table, stow your carry on, turn off your phone and think about how these lessons will help you become a better communicator.

photo credit: blakespot via photopin cc

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  1. Randy says

    There’s another lesson one might take from this story: The message you’re communicating has to be *believable*.

    If 30% of people sometimes leave their devices on accidentally, and 61% of those are smartphones (which implies there some additional dumb phones too), that’s at least 18% of passengers who sometimes leave a phone on, which probably equates to several phones being on when they shouldn’t be during EVERY flight. According to the warnings, phones are the worst offenders for “interference”, so if the phones really cause problems, we should have planes dropping out of the sky every day.

    Yet we don’t, and there’s almost no hard scientific evidence that electronic devices are a problem. There is some anecdotal evidence, but one of the more thorough studies found what amounted to 12 cases per year of anecdotal connection between electronic devices and strange cockpit electronics behavior. That’s one anecdotal case per month. And there are about 800,000 – 900,000 flights per month, so that means the anecdotal evidence is that just a little more than one flight in a *million* MAY have experienced interference, but the earlier statistics guarantee that virtually every flight will have some cell phones on at times when they will supposedly cause interference.

    I’m not saying that interference can’t happen, but the FAA and the airlines haven’t come *close* to making a convincing case that turning off cell-phones matters, and until they do, I suspect that the *lack of believability* will trump all the other lessons you’ve drawn from these compliance statistics. (You can also think of this in terms of the “credibility” aspect of “sticky messages” discussed in the book “Made To Stick”.)

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