Effective Communications

by Hector of the Black Height

from the "Proceedings of the Inaugural Session of the Northern War College"

As we strive to build units, develop strategy and create a strong army, we must remember we are not hammering out an artifact. We are assembling people, directing them, instructing them and motivating them. We are leading people onto the battlefield, whether as local marshals, household heads or as Royalty.

There are many different definitions of leadership, perhaps as many as there are leaders. However, a good, generic definition encapsulates what we want to accomplish. For example:

Leadership is the art of influencing human behaviour in order to achieve a goal in the manner desired by the leader.

That's one good definition, courtesy of the Canadian military; there are many others. All of them say much the same thing. Leadership is about getting people to do something. The way people figure out what the leader wants them to do is communication. You cannot lead, you cannot be a leader, without communicating your aim and your plan to your subordinates. Communication is critical to the success of what we are doing at Northern War College.

Let's examine this concept in SCA terms. The usual pre-battle preparation in the Middle is a night-long strategy conference by the King and his cronies, followed by a sluggish morning, a gradual stream of fighters onto the field and a sudden panic at the three-minute warning. This panic, which hits all levels from the shieldwall to the generals, covers a wide variety of territory; ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Has the plan changed?’ ‘Is there a plan at all?’ All these questions are symptoms of one problem. The people in charge have failed to communicate with their army. Without communication there can be no execution, co-operation or co-ordination. Without communication there is room for doubt in the minds of the shieldwall fighters who are expected to do something on the field, and doubt erodes morale. If you don’t communicate, you will lose.

The three-minute gun is NOT the time to be issuing orders, passing information and getting your ducks in a row. The later you wait to pass information, the more confused and distracting the situation will be. People will be feeling the adrenaline rush and missing every second word you say; some will be wearing helmets and won't be able to hear anything. Others will ignore you and watch the other side forming up. You can't issue detailed orders to every swinging stick the week before or even the night before the battle; our situation isn’t structured enough for this approach. You can gather our subordinates a few minutes before the armies form up on the field. This ‘calm before the storm’ is when information can and must be passed.

Fighting the Time Squeeze

In the race with ‘SCA time’, it's fair to assume that everything will be running late. One hopes the King and his high command will have their plan ready to roll on the morning of the battle. This means that when the sun rises over the battlefield ten or even twenty people know what's supposed to happen. The challenge is to get the word to all the other fighters before the gun goes off. How can we make sure this happens?

First, recognise the time squeeze inherent in last minute operations. Let’s take a look at an unfortunately typical situation. The Kings and Dukes assemble their Barons and warlords at 9:45 and lay out the ‘big picture’ for twenty minutes or so. It's now 10:05. The Barons pass the word to their knights and chief men for fifteen minutes more. It's now 10:20. The knights brief their squires for five or ten minutes, and it's 10:30 and the gun just went off. The squires then run after the charging shieldwall, a wall led by men-at-arms who have no idea where they're going. This is NOT an army destined for success! If the commanders aren't aware of the problem of time squeeze, the time available before the battle will be spent briefing people who are probably in the know already, at least in part. When do the troops get briefed? Make time to pass the word to the guys who'll lock shields when the gun goes off. Having made time, take that time and use it!

Second, remember who you're talking to. The fighter in the shield wall wants to know where to go and what to do when he or she arrives. Any fighter at War will tell you that a field with twenty-five hundred fighters on it seems to narrow to a few square feet very quickly. You must communicate what the fighter will need to know in his or her few square feet of the field.

Need to Know vs. Nice to Know

What orders do SCAdians need to give or receive? Logistics instructions are immaterial; our fighters arm, equip and feed themselves. Long-range planning is unnecessary; after this battle the biggest follow-up is the skirmish-line at the showers and the event staff take care of those who actually are wounded. Fighters just want to know those portions of the plan which effect them immediately.

Whether you're a general or a shield-carrier, you want to know the following things:

what you and the people around you are expected to do;

who you're going to do it to, where and when;

how you're supposed to get to where you’re going; and

who's on your immediate left, right, front and rear.

If you can pass this information to your fighters, they'll be happy and will perform much better. This is the need-to-know information. Anything more is either nice-to-know or unnecessary clutter.

Orders will be passed in the minutes immediately preceding the opening gun, probably by a tired, adrenaline-pumped individual with a serious lack of concentration. As this is the classic description of a young officer or sergeant in any battle since the dawn of time, the military has got used to making passage of information easy for these people. In Canada’s army the infantry have evolved an acronym for the key points that must be covered: EMFORT. This stands for:







These six points cover all the essentials for a sub-unit in a simple attack. These six points are the need-to-knows; they offer nothing else, but what more does the guy in the shieldwall need or want to know? EMFORT is a check-list, so nothing gets forgotten. Here’s an example of fast orders for a sub-unit using the EMFORT format:

‘We're going to attack the guys with the blue shields directly across the field. We will break through them; I repeat, we will break through them. We're doing a frontal assault when we get there, my people front and centre, Sir Mildew and his boys on my left, Master Blaster's lance on my right, Duke Luke's squires in the rear. Once through their line, rally on the Baronial banner. We move off at a run as soon as the gun sounds.’

What else needs be said at this level?

Communications is an art; it requires practice. Using EMFORT -- or any other format you’re comfortable with -- takes some getting used to, both by the individual giving orders and the people receiving them. Practice giving orders in a consistent format at your local fight practice, in melees and at war practices. Listeners will soon recognise that the information they're receiving is coming across in constant form. They will become better listeners because they’ll know what they're listening for.

What to Say and How to Say It

Always have a plan. Nothing destroys morale like forming up on the battlefield and knowing there’s no real plan. Commanders must let their people know what the plan is; if the higher command’s plan is sparse or vague, unit commanders can be explicit about how they intend to react once the gun sounds.

Use positive language. Don’t say ‘we’re going to try to stop Atlantia’, say ‘we WILL stop Atlantia’. You will be amazed at what fighters will accomplish if you tell them they can do something and make it clear that you believe what you’re saying. Don’t be unrealistic; just have some faith in your people. The battlefield is a chaotic place; plans evaporate, supporting units get tied up elsewhere, the bad guys zig when you hope they’d zag. When all else fails, trust your people. Ealdormere has met many challenges over the years because good leaders told us there was a big job to do. Communicate positively, and watch your people meet the challenge.

One of the arts of the successful commander is listening to ‘big picture’ orders and then extracting only those portions of the plan that his or her people need to know. This produces a result consistent with one of the fundamentals of military science, the KISS principle. At the same time, remember that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. A very capable military scientist of my acquaintance (and a veteran of infantry combat in Viet Nam) describes this in terms of a football game. The quarterback makes his plan, calls the play and then the ball is snapped. Once the ball is snapped there is no control; the details of the plan may even be irrelevant. At this time each player must act as he sees fit.

How does the fighter know what to do when the gun sounds and the details of a plan fall by the wayside? The individual fighter is going to do one of two things; either he or she is going to look to an immediate superior and say ‘what now?’ or the individual will strike out alone. In either situation the overall communication strategy employed by leaders at all levels is important.

Extracting the Essentials

Leaders of units and sub-units should understand three things about the battle plan;

as much of the detailed, overall plan as will influence their operations locally (what the people on the flanks will be doing, friendly units that will be moving past them or may menace the enemy's rear and draw pressure off);

their immediate superior's mission, plan and approach, so even if the plan goes out the window when the gun goes off the leadership knows what their people are supposed to accomplish and how their Prince or Baron or whoever is likely to react; and

a basic overview of the big picture (i.e. is the army doing a frontal assault, double envelopment or turning one flank or another), a ‘king's-eye view’.

This sort of information allows leaders to improvise with the least likelihood of going the wrong way or leaving another unit's flanks exposed.

The shieldwall fighter stands a good possibility of being left isolated during the battle; cut off from the line by an enemy attack, the last survivor of a unit or just unable to catch up or slow down. All fighters experience this from time to time. In this situation you don't need to know the detailed plan. Each fighter needs a general outline, the ‘king's-eye view’, so he or she knows whether to go left, right or straight ahead. Aware of the big picture, the individual fighter will be able to keep moving forward once isolated. This maintains the overall momentum of the advance, maintains pressure on the enemy and vastly increases the individual's chances of catching up with a unit (his or her own or another friendly unit) and thus increasing that individual's influence on the battle as a whole.

The ‘king's-eye view’ must be the epitome of the KISS principle. If a unit’s basic plan can't be summed up for a unit in one short sentence (‘swing right then hook left and deep’) or a simple instruction (‘charge, break through and keep moving towards the far corner of the field’) it's too complex and probably won't work.

There is no way to account for all contingencies on the battlefield. Leaders must be prepared for a fluid situation. Orders should be clear, concise and simple, reflecting a simple, practical and thus a robust battle plan. Remember, the greatest plan in the world is useless if no-one in your unit knows what the plan is. Communicate effectively, clearly and in a timely manner and your fighters will have higher morale, be more aggressive and execute more efficiently. On a level playing field against a chivalrous foe, that’s more than enough to turn defeat into victory.

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.