It’s almost Thanksgiving, which reminds me of the time many years ago when my former colleague Julie wanted to make her first-ever apple pie.
To increase the degree of difficulty, the pie had to be perfect: It was the featured dessert for Thanksgiving dinner. Julie was filling in as pie baker for her sister, who was away at veterinary school, and whose apple pie was legendary.
Naturally, Julie was a little apprehensive. And although several friends advised her to take the easy way out and buy a pie, Julie was determined to rise to the occasion and make the pie from scratch.
The key to her success, Julie decided, would be a really good recipe. She knew she needed extremely specific directions. So she searched the web, settling on epicurious.com, which had 42 apple pie recipes.
Julie examined every one of them. “First, I eliminated the funky ones that seemed to have odd ingredients, like cranberries, because I wanted to make a traditional apple pie,” Julie recalled. “And then I narrowed down the choices based on how specific the recipe seemed to be. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.”
She settled on “Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie” because it met her criteria for precision—and she loves crumbs.
“What I liked was that both the ingredient list and the preparation instructions were divided into three categories: crust, filling and topping,” said Julie. “Everything followed along in sequence. It was all very explicit.”
And that’s where the communication analogy comes in (as you knew it would). Employees want clear, specific, helpful information. If there’s action they need to take, they prefer explicit directions. Employees want to know exactly how to do something.
How did Julie do? There were a few anxious moments: How much flour should she use to roll out the crust? When rolling out the dough, what should she do if it breaks? As a result, Julie called her vet-school sister at least a couple of times.
But, in general, Julie felt that the recipe served her well. “When I started to mix the crumbs together, I got nervous because they didn’t resemble crumbs that I had seen on pies. But there in the recipe was the reassurance: ‘Cut in until mixture resembles wet sand.’ That made me feel that I was on the right track.”
Everything took a long time, but a couple of hours after she started preparation, Julie took the pie out of the oven. It was beautiful! She carefully carried it to the dinner, where the host displayed it in a place of honor.
And when dessert was served, everyone agreed: Julie’s pie was delicious. In fact, it was perfect.