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Loud and Clear: A Red Button Technique for Effective Communication

"The Red Button Technique" is based on the communication between pilots in the air. 
This technique will be helpful for podcasters, professional communicators, but also for those who want to improve their persuasive social and business communication.

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Editing one's own podcast begins a perilous journey. Agonizing over every little fumble, verbal crutch, filler and awkward pause, one's mind begins to anticipate each impending "um," "ah" and "right." Like pesky little potholes along the way to rhetorical Valhalla — they offer a wincing reminder that laudatory speech or prose lies well beyond the grasp of most.

The truth is, you don't really need to edit your own podcast. But I wanted to do so — to become a better podcaster and to confront my own mistakes as the quickest and surest path to improvement.

Hosting a podcast stresses fundamental qualities of effective verbal communication: listening without interrupting, asking correct questions and learning when to steer a conversation back into focus. Improving as a podcaster entails much more than just avoiding filler words. It means becoming a more engaged communicator — a materially more daunting prospect than watching out for stray "ums" or "ahs."

In working through how to become a more effective communicator, I've come to rely on what I like to call "The Red Button Technique" – a rubric developed from my experience and training as an aviator.

Related: 14 Proven Ways to Improve Your Communication Skills

The Red Button Technique

As a student pilot, I found myself at the intersection of a very stressful but exciting time of my life. While working as a podcast host and training for my instrument flight rules (IFR) exam, I interviewed Tammy Jo Shults. Shults is a former Navy aviator and combat pilot who rose to fame in 2018 as a pilot of Southwest Airlines. While piloting Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, Shults was forced to bring 183 people safely back to Earth after an engine exploded without warning, puncturing the fuselage and sucking a passenger out to their death.

While editing my podcast interview with Shults and listening to her unfaltering and crystal clear exchange with air traffic control (ATC) on that fateful day, my mind inevitably focused on my upcoming IFR exam and the importance of good radio technique.

In IFR, you essentially fly blind to whatever is outside your cockpit. It's how pilots fly through clouds, fog, storms and other low-visibility conditions. In IFR, a successful pilot navigates only with the aid of radio traffic with Air Traffic Control (ATC) and four basic onboard instruments: attitude indicator, airspeed indicator, altimeter and heading indicator.

In such adverse conditions, any pilot needs a lot of input from ATC. To put it mildly, IFR requires an almost overwhelming number of radio calls. Everything goes incredibly fast, and there's no time for mumbling, tripping over words, or verbal crutches. Indeed, some pilots are so intimidated by IFR radio communications that they avoid flying IFR altogether — even after obtaining their licenses to do so.

A fear of effective radio communication, also known as Mic Fright, is a common ailment among new pilots, whether they're training for IFR or not. Being clear and precise isn't easy while you're simultaneously trying to remember fresh information, battle performance anxiety and avoid fixating on the consequences of a potentially fatal mistake.

Turns out, that's exactly what was happening to me during my podcast interviews. Things were moving fast, and I wasn't prepared the same way I was whenever I sat in the cockpit. That needed to change. I wanted to bring the assertiveness and precision I had found in the flight deck into the recording studio — and indeed into every other part of my life.

I also realized that if I approach everyday communication the same way I approach IFR radio communications — intentionally, and with my undivided attention on the other party — I would become both a better podcaster and conversationalist.

After analyzing how I operated in the air versus on the ground, I identified three touchstones of effective communication: listening, practicing and thinking. I then organized those three principles into a system I've nicknamed "The Red Button Technique," after the push-to-talk (PTT) switch pilots use to communicate with ATC.

Related: Effective Communication Begins With This Radical First Step

Step 1: Listen

Aircraft radios operate in half-duplex mode — meaning that both parties share the same frequency, but only one party can transmit at a time, forcing users to take turns talking. If you press the red button to talk, you won't be able to hear anyone else, and you will also block others from transmitting. This forces you not only to listen and wait for your turn to speak, but also to make the most out of your allotted speaking time.

In life outside the cockpit, we don't have such a physical check. Communications happen in full-duplex mode: All parties can transmit simultaneously and interrupt one other. We, therefore, must all make a conscious effort to balance speaking with listening and know when to press and release our rhetorical red buttons.

If we all talk, nobody listens. Knowing when not to speak is just as important as knowing what to say. Ignoring and interrupting others can lead to fatal outcomes in the skies. On the ground, it destroys conversations and also costs you relationships as well as the healthy exchange of ideas.

Step 2: Practice

Hundreds of training hours have taught me how to speak like a pilot, along with which words and phrases I can expect to hear in the air. While flying, I try to know, through practice, exactly what to say in any scenario. This, of course, is impossible to replicate outside the limited confines of an aircraft. There's no checklist of all the phrases one can expect to encounter in everyday conversations, and there's no instructor to point out mistakes or areas for improvement.

To help myself, I turned the process of editing my own podcast into an experiment in self-correction. On the surface level, I took note of every verbal crutch and realized that I desperately needed to stop saying things like "right." Going deeper, I studied other interviewers, asking: How do I conduct myself in comparison? Does the quality of my questions stack up to theirs? Much like we do in flight school, I prepared for emergency scenarios — practicing things I could say when speakers stumbled or interviews hit a rough patch.

During this process, I realized that preparing for conversations doesn't mean rehearsing everything you'll say, as you do when flying. It's about setting a goal to guide every interaction. I decided that, as a person and podcaster, my overriding goal will be to learn and let the other party shine. Each word I say will be directed toward creating opportunities for others to succeed and share their stories.

Related: The Cost of Ineffective Communication and How to Improve

Step 3: Think

Aviation thrives on brevity and precision. Every word counts, because every second counts. Communication with ATC is a precious commodity. Attention is a limited resource in life outside the cockpit, too — and collecting your thoughts before you start speaking is a key to success in both scenarios. When it's your turn to press that red button, you'd better be sure of what you're going to say.

Thoughtful words are tied to thoughtful listening. In the air, we listen to build situational awareness. Situational awareness then helps us understand what's going on around us and forecast what may happen next. The more information we have, the better we can evaluate the present and anticipate the future. In conversation, active listening helps you understand what the other person is saying, why they're saying it, and how they really feel about the topics at hand. Once you build that picture of an interlocutor's intentions, you'll never be at a loss for words.

Thinking before you speak is not only about organizing what you're going to say, but also about analyzing the potential effects of those words. Will they help move the conversation forward? Could they anger the other party or make them feel uncomfortable? And, most importantly, why am I saying them?

Well thought-out words communicate confidence. Listening, practicing and thinking helps you lead deeper conversations and create more meaningful connections — no matter the scenario.

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