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The process of giving instructions often leaves a significant amount of room for misinterpretation. People are often distracted during the briefing, or skim the email containing instructions. Or, the recipient may just make some different assumptions than the person delivering the instructions. Regardless, as in the childhood game of ‘telephone’, the message’s intent can be distorted.

The briefback is an effective tool to manage that ambiguity. A briefback (sometimes called “brief back” with two words, or “backbrief”) is exactly what it sounds like. The person or people receiving the instructions give a synopsis of the instructions they just received. The person originally giving the instructions can then determine whether the message was received properly. Obviously, if the repeated version is not the same as the original intent, the instructions should be clarified.

Brief backs serve a few very important purposes.

  1. If people know they may be called on to provide a synopsis of the plan, they are more likely to pay attention and take notes.
  2. Everyone walks away with the same understanding of the plan.
  3. The team hears the plan twice. Repetition helps retention.
  4. The briefback reduces waste by preventing rework when a plan is misinterpreted.
  5. The briefback provides leaders with a chance to hear their plan out loud. They can critique their own ideas in a way that is harder to do in their head.
  6. The briefback can spur a catchball process to improve problems with the plan.


There are a few basic ways to do brief backs.

  1. Have one person brief back on the entire plan. In one-on-one sessions, the choice of person is obvious. In group sessions, randomly pick one person.
  2. When briefing a team, have one person start the brief back, and pick others at random to continue the briefing. Try to get everyone involved, but if the plan is fairly short, it may be best to have only a few people speak. They will get a lot of the same effect just by having the chance of being called upon.
  3. If time is short, ask specific questions about key parts of the plan. It will rapidly become clear if the plan was given clearly.


If small section of the briefback do not go well, clarify theose issues and proceed with implementation.

If there is a general misunderstanding and the briefback does not go well, go back to the drawing board. It is generally better to cut bait and try again than to try to patch up a poorly executed briefing. 

  • Don’t just go through the motions of a briefback, or it will just be a waste of time. The person being briefed back should pay close attention to the repeated instructions.
  • Breifbacks should not just be used for a leader’s instructions. They are also good for clarifying and confirming questions and issues that team members are facing.
  • The original briefer should watch out for signs of irritation when using briefbacks. Some people can feel micromanaged when asked to repeat what they heard.

Try not to feel irritated at having to do a briefback. It can feel childish to have to repeat back instructions.

“What did I tell you about eating candy without permission?”

“You said not to do it…”

The truth is, though, that the small investment of time in repeating what you were told to do will save you a lot more time and frustration in the long run. The fact is that if you don’t do what your boss wanted you to do, it doesn’t matter whether the instructions were clear or not. You’ll be starting over.

  • The more complicated or important an instruction is, the more detailed of a briefback you should require. For simple instructions, get just the highlights. For complicated plans, ask for more detail, or ask follow-up questions.
  • Don’t limit the use of the briefback to just verbal instructions. They are also good tools to check whether you write clearly and succinctly.
  • Pay attention to how often the briefback matches your original intent. If you are chronically having to make drastic changes to your instructions, or are repeating points you thought would be well understood, you probably have some room to improve your communication skills.
  • It is ALWAYS the briefer’s fault if the message is not received. Even if the instructees were not paying attention, it is the instructor/leader’s responsibility to recognize and correct that problem. Never think ‘They didn’t understand’. Think ‘I wasn’t clear.’ It will help improve your ability to give clear, concise, effective instructions if you take personal responsibility for the receipt of the message.

  • Instructions can easily be misinterpreted.
  • Briefbacks highlight poor communication, but also makes people listen better if they know they will be repeating instructions.


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