Roger, wilco: when communications need to be crystal clear

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Posted by Matthew Stibbe

I have worked on a couple of projects where my clients and I shared detailed conversations about the work, and I wrote a detailed brief. When I delivered the final case study / white paper / whatever else, it was not what they expected. I’ve been thinking about why this happens.

Divided by a common language

I think it is because the same word can mean different things to different people. A white paper or a case study has a very specific meaning for me and it’s easy for me to assume it means the same for everyone. What is marketing material for one person may be something entirely different to another. It is always worth checking.

These days I try to show people something similar that I have done or ask them for an example of what they want.

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What’s our vector, Victor?

It’s different in the world of flying. I have a commercial pilot’s licence and despite what you see in the movie Airplane and all the cliches about ‘over and out’, as a rule communication between plane and tower is very tightly controlled. It has a specific vocabulary.

Here are a few examples from the CAA’s CAP 413 Radiotelephony Manual:

  • ACKNOWLEDGE – Let me know that you have received and understood this
  • AFFIRM – Yes. [NOT Affirmative which could be confused with Negative on a bad link]
  • APPROVED** – Permission for proposed action granted.
  • CHECK – Examine a system or procedure. (Not to be used in any other
    context. No answer is normally expected.)
  • CLEARED ? – Authorised to proceed under the conditions specified.
  • CONFIRM – I request verification of: (clearance, instruction, action,
  • CORRECTION – An error has been made in this transmission (or message
    indicated). The correct version is …
  • DISREGARD – Ignore.
  • NEGATIVE – No; or Permission not granted; or That is not correct; or Not
  • OUT* – This exchange of transmissions is ended and no response is
    expected. [Not normally used in U/VHF Communications]
  • OVER* – My transmission is ended and I expect a response from you. [Not normally used in U/VHF Communications]
  • REPORT – Pass requested information.
  • REQUEST – I should like to know … or I wish to obtain …
  • ROGER – I have received all your last transmission.
    Note: Under no circumstances to be used in reply to a question
    requiring a direct answer in the affirmative (AFFIRM) or
    negative (NEGATIVE).
  • STANDBY – Wait and I will call you.
    Note: No onward clearance to be assumed. The caller would
    normally re-establish contact if the delay is lengthy. STANDBY
    is not an approval or denial.
  • UNABLE – I cannot comply with your request, instruction or clearance.
    Unable is normally followed by a reason.
  • WILCO – I understand your message and will comply with it
    (abbreviation for will comply)

It may not be obvious from this list that the old cliche “Over and out” is just wrong.  It’s either “over” or “out”.  Similarly, “Roger Wilco” is silly.  Roger means “I heard and understood you” (but might not do what you say) whereas “wilco” means “I heard and understood you and will do what you request.”

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