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.
Is 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
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:
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- 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.
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
- In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects,
"That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work,
and how can the respondent escape the trap?
- Start the Meeting with a Check-In
- Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things
are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
- Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
- And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.