Dave looked impatiently at his watch, and then thrust his right arm forward, palm first, signaling "Halt." Everyone in the room stopped breathing, and Eileen instantly knew she was in trouble. She stopped her report in mid-sentence. "Dave?" she said, looking at him. "Something?"
"Yeah, something," he replied sternly. "What's the headline?"
"I was just getting to the headline. Can I continue?"
Wrong answer. Eileen did continue, but it might have been smarter to have just answered him with her headline. Smarter still: lead with the headline, and then offer the details as an option.
And that's my headline: Deliver the Headline First. For the details, read on.
- The headline is the consequence, not the reason why
- The headline is the consequence of the situation, taken as far as you can take it. For instance, a headline might be: "We can't finish on schedule." But if you've worked out the range of finish dates, the headline might be: "We'll be late by three months with 95% confidence."
- The four major classes of details are evidence, reasoning, hunches, and drivers
- Evidence is fact. Reasoning is the chain of inferences drawn from the evidence. Hunches are informed guesses, consistent with evidence. Drivers are perceived benefits or risks that you combine with evidence, reasoning, and hunches to reach a headline.
- The So-What test helps you find the headline
- Headline-first gives you
more control of
- Say the headline to yourself. Then ask, "So What?" If you have an answer, then it's probably a better candidate headline. Repeat until you can't answer "So What?" For instance, if you start with, "We'll be late by three months," and your so-what answer is "We need to figure out now what to do," then perhaps the real headline is "We'll be late by three months and we need to figure out now what to do."
- Headline-first isn't better — it's just preferred
- Most managers prefer the headline first because they want to know possible consequences. Since they sometimes also want the details — the evidence, reasoning, hunches, and drivers — offer the option: "Do you want the detail?"
- Headline-first gives you more control of the conversation
- Suspense tends to encourage people to imagine trouble. Delivering the headline first guides the minds of the recipients. If they do ask for detail, then as they listen, the headline guides their thinking. If, instead, you deliver detail first, they don't know where you're going, and they might imagine things less wonderful (or even worse) than your headline.
When delivering bad news, we have a tendency to be indirect — to avoid clear statements that describe the event and its consequences. This practice can actually make things worse, and it can create significant additional cost. See "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006, for more.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Manipulated Commitments
- Manipulated or coerced commitment looks pretty good on paper, but it might not lead to dedicated action.
When the truth is finally revealed, trouble can be unavoidable.
- Saying No
- When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate
with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the
group toward joint problem solving.
- The True Costs of Indirectness
- Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than
the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict.
It can be an expensive practice.
- Virtual Meetings: Dealing with Inattention
- There is much we can do to reduce the incidence of inattention in virtual meetings. Cooperation is required.
- The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words
- When we take special care in choosing our words, so as to avoid creating misimpressions, something strange
often happens: we create a misimpression of ignorance or deceitfulness. Why does this happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 18: Missing the Obvious: II
- With hindsight, we sometimes recognize that we could have predicted the very thing that just now surprised us. Somehow, we missed the obvious. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on October 18.
- And on October 25: Workplace Memes
- Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
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