By Prue Stamp, Head of People & Culture at Urban Leisure Group

Communication. Is. Complex. We’ve said it before and we will no doubt say it again but hospitality, probably more than any other industry, is full to bursting with people from different backgrounds, of different ages, with different learning styles, on different working patterns, and so on. It’s so easy to think, “I sent the email, job done” but real, impactful communication is so much more than just words. So how then do leaders navigate the complexity of our audience (our teams) and get really, really good at communication that lands with everyone?

1. Accept that you have to do the work.

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw. “They just don’t listen!”, “I told them a million times!”, “Nobody gets it!”.  We hear (and say) variations of this theme time and time and time again. Managers frustrated that their comms aren’t landing, their people aren’t listening, or their message just isn’t getting through.  In 2024 we’re in near constant contact with our work mates (a good thing or a bad thing? Perhaps that conversation is for another time!) – team meetings, Slack, Teams, Emails, project management platforms, WhatsApp, the list goes on and on. We have so many tools at our disposal but, in order to get really good at using them to land a message, we have to take the time to hone our skills.

When we realise that communication is not what we say, but what the other person hears, we can become so much more effective at landing the message. All of this takes real effort and, ultimately, time. Great communication can be likened to gardening – you need to prepare the soil, consider the weather and season, remove weeds, prune, trim and nurture your plants to give them a chance at growing and growing well. If you’ve gone to effort to head to the garden centre, pick out a tree and bring it home again, only to chuck it in the back garden without even digging a hole, that bad boy is simply not going to take root. Like a tree, great communication and getting your message across takes care. Having a face to face? Prepare the space, choose the right time, remove interruptions and be properly present. Writing an email or Slack message? Read it back and read it back again. If you want your message to stand out amongst the noise, you’d better put in the work – a rushed, lazy message tells the reader, “you’re not important enough for me to take the time to carefully put this message together.”  So, take your time, accept that great, effective communication goes beyond just passing information back and forth and craft your comms with care.

2. Clear is kind.

Ever received an email, read it, and had absolutely no idea what it’s asking/saying/if you’re meant to do anything? How about the dreaded random CC? HR, a manager etc sitting quietly (maybe ominously) in CC and you don’t know why? How about the old classic “Can we have a chat?” Nothing will send your stomach plummeting through the floor quite like that question with no context. Not fun. Very often we tell ourselves that being clear is too harsh, too uncomfortable or takes too much mental or emotional heavy lifting. We conflate clarity with that old chestnut “brutal honesty” and dance around the point, so desperate are we to not offend. The opposite is true – feeding people ambiguous bullshit because you’re too busy or scared to say what you mean? Unclear, unkind, and won’t get results.

So how can managers avoid the ambiguity trap and get their messages landing? Simply put, say what you mean and mean what you say. Is it a question, a statement or are you just sharing info with no actions needed and why are those CCs there?! It’s so important to spell out the purpose of your message and what, if anything, needs to happen next. Brene Brown (stalwart of so many workplace teachings) goes further with her idea of “paint done”. Painting done means not just assigning a task or demanding an action but explaining the “why”. Let’s look at the difference – “Hey, can you please jump on that cutlery?” Directive, dry. “Hey, can you please jump on that cutlery? We have a 12pax coming in 20 mins and we’re low, we don’t want to be playing catch up. Thanks!” Contextual, lands the message, explains the why.

A final note on clarity – good old jargon. Research tells us that our brains process information in two ways. The first is intuition—those gut reactions, first impressions, or emotional responses that happen automatically when we encounter some new information or an unfamiliar situation. The second is cognition—this is where we’re weighing alternatives, making calculations, seeking out new information, and performing other mental tasks that kick in when we have to “stop and think”. What jargon does is force your reader or listener to switch from intuition to cognition, pushing them to expend valuable mental energy on deciphering unfamiliar words, phrases, or acronyms (essentially translating) – you don’t sound clever, you sound confusing. Hospitality has its own language (EPOS, pax, 86, 2 top, BOH, covers, a la carte, GP and so on) and sure, these words and their meanings are learned over time but it’s important to remember that not everyone has your years of experience and not everyone will understand the lingo right off the bat. So, kill the jargon or at least take the time to translate for any fresh talent – speak the language of your audience.

The final note on clarity is WhatsApp. Instant messaging poses a real challenge here, particularly with tone – so easy is it to snap a picture of a poor close down, a messy walk-in or the unpumped wines. Many businesses have claimed to have banned its use at work but I’d bet my bottom dollar that people revert to form and start using it again. So, rather than an outright ban which probably won’t work, consider agreeing with your teams that WhatsApp should be strictly positive or neutral, no narky messages that will ruin someone’s day off or public calling out. We’re all using it, let’s just make sure it’s a force for good (and remember you can mute your notifications!).

3. Use stories.

Something happens in our brains when we hear a well told story. Narrative formats grab our attention and help us to organize, understand and retain information more effectively, all while inspiring and motivating us. The best thing about stories is their staying power – there’s a reason that medieval myths and legends still hang about today. It’s obvious that we use stories to sell our brands to our customers and guests – marketing leans heavily on the power of stories to evoke emotions and make a place, plate, ingredient or drink memorable and we can apply this same principle when we’re communicating with our teams. A simple way to leverage stories is share your own experience, wrap an instruction up in a story and watch it land right on the bullseye.

Here’s an example – I had a GM once who was big on the concept of the “suspense of disbelief”, that is, creating an environment for our guests where the magic is never interrupted by the sight of blue roll on the bar or the bartender’s pouch of tobacco on the waiters station. He would roll into every shift and ask “do we sell this?” of everything that wasn’t in its place or shouldn’t be visible to the guests. I grabbed onto this with both hands and became obsessed with making sure the venue looked beautiful, all the time, with no random bits and bobs breaking the fourth wall and ruining the magic. Throughout my career in venues, I’d tell the story of this GM, picking up blue roll, sanitizer, someone’s half drunk lime soda and asking, “do we sell this?” to all my new team members – the story took hold, was memorable and it got the result I wanted; a clean, organised, beautiful venue that we could all be proud to work in.

4. Timing is everything.

One aspect of communication which is regularly overlooked is timing. Not how we deliver a message or what we say, but when. As leaders, we’re often trapped in a bit of a busy cycle of just getting shit done, off the list, next thing please – but we can be so much more effective and get the results we’re after when we get tactical with our timings. Points to consider here; is your listener/reader distracted or able to be receptive and, is there too much information flowing in at the moment to allow my message to be absorbed? We know that we work funny hours in restaurants and bars so, just as we get frustrated with the sales rep who rocks up at 1pm on a Friday, smack bang in the middle of a lunch service, consider how your team might get frustrated with you if you’re asking them to take in information when their attention is (rightly) elsewhere. A message to your managers on say, a Monday afternoon when you know they’ve finished their end of week admin is far more likely to be received and understood than if you chuck it at them on a Thursday night or during Sunday roast service. Make sure your listener has brain space or you run the risk of the message ricocheting away.

As important as timing your messages is timing your silence. A couple of years ago we decided that the near constant flow of communication to our teams was doing actual harm – people simply couldn’t take it all in. So, we introduced a Communications Manifesto which outlines, among other things, a strict Comms Blackout, a set time (from Friday afternoon to Monday morning) where all communication channels go quiet so people can enjoy their downtime or focus on busy services if they’re working without the ping, buzz or flash of a message or call pulling their focus. Of course, business-critical things may override the blackout, but the idea is simple – let your people focus on the important things in service and hold your message for a time when it will be heard and understood and most importantly, not extremely bloody annoying.

The final word on communication is consistency – we know that carefully crafted, clear, memorable and well-timed messages and information land, so be consistent with these things – get that buy-in from the very top and don’t be afraid to correct others when they stray from what works. Use the tools, practice the skills and watch your capacity for stellar communication grow. 

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