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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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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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