What a car mechanic taught me about communicating clearly

4 Nov 2020

Communication isn’t a skill that can only be learned from a training course, or read about in a book. Everyday life provides fantastic opportunities to learn how to improve your communication. I’d like to share one of the most valuable lessons I learned and tell you what a car mechanic taught me about communicating clearly.

Not long after learning to drive, I purchased an old BMW. It was a terrible decision. That old car had so many problems; it was in the garage more often than it was on the road. Whenever it broke down, I had the car towed to the same garage and had the same mechanic work on it. Not only was he able to fix anything, but he also knew how to communicate the things his customers cared about most.

After checking out the cause of the latest breakdown, he would give me the news. He didn’t run through the long list of work he had to do or give me a list of parts that needed replacing. Instead, he started with the total cost to repair and how long it would take to complete.

The mechanic knew the thing I cared about most. It’s the same thing anyone cares most about when their car is in the garage. How much will it cost, and how long will I be without my car?

Every time I arrived at his garage, he talked to me in the same way. I always knew the most important information at the start of the conversation.

After giving me the price and the timeframe to do the repairs, he would talk through as much detail as I wanted. He’d answer my questions and provide options to either reduce the repair time or lower the cost. These conversations allowed me to get to the level of understanding I needed to justify the cost. I was able to focus on the detail of these conversations because I already knew the key message. If the talks were the other way around, with the facts first, I wouldn’t have wanted the detail. I would have been distracted, wondering what the total cost would be.

Deliver the key message first

I learned two lessons from owning that car:

  • Don’t buy an old car
  • People usually want to know the key message upfront
  • Delivering critical information early in your communication is an integral part of being a good communicator.

It is easy to see why people care about the key message when they have to spend money or loose time waiting for repair. But, this desire for crucial information at the start of a conversation isn’t limited to services. At work, in our teams and departments, people don’t want to wait for five minutes for someone to get to the point. They want to know critical information up front.

Anyone familiar with communication in the United States military will have come across the term BLUF. This acronym stands for ‘bottom line upfront’ and means putting the conclusion and recommendation at the beginning of the message rather than at the end. BLUF facilitates rapid decision making and helps people deliver a message in fewer words. Putting the bottom line upfront is a great way to define the key message. It’s the one thing your audience needs to know or cares the most about.

Think about your own conversations and emails at work. Are you delivering the key message first?