Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 18;   May 3, 2006: Deliver the Headline First

Deliver the Headline First

by

When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
A headline about the War of the Worlds Broadcast

A headline from the Chicago Sun-Times about the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. From the report of the US Federal Communications Commission, courtesy U.S. National Archives.

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
the conversation
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.

Sometime soon, you'll have an opportunity to deliver some news. If you don't normally deliver news headline-first, try it, then tell me how it went. Headline first, please. Go to top Top  Next issue: Social Distancing for Pandemic Flu  Next Issue

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenAvOQqvhezwSfMhwnner@ChacQKQcjNUwskFugzdwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Cheese and crackersWhen Naming Hurts
One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify, to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies, our colleagues, and ourselves.
Circular reasoningBegging the Question
Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
Gen. George Casey, Dep. Sec. Paul Wolfowitz, and Sec. Donald RumsfeldDismissive Gestures: I
Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
The musical energy behind "Shall We Dance" (1937)What We Don't Know About Each Other
We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
Historic handshake in Porvoo Finland in 2007The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: II
Where the handshake is a customary business greeting, it's possible to offend accidentally. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for handshakes in the USA.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTtpUYairEEMztDUQner@ChacSRfbxeKUbSidASjuoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.