I'll get right to the point. When communicating with others at work, start at the end. Don't keep people in suspense about the import of what you're saying. Start with the import, fill in a few salient details, and ask if they want more background. If they don't, you're done. If they do, give some detail, and then ask again. Keep iterating until done.
Do you want more detail? No? Then we're done. Yes? Keep reading. There's a lot more.
Storytelling has become fashionable in workplace communications. Trainers are offering classes in storytelling at work — to motivate, to persuade, or to drive the point home. Storytelling does have its place, but that place is much smaller than many realize.
In the modern workplace, most of us have too much work and not enough time. We want to hear what others have to say, but with a minimum of fluff. We care most about what. Why or how, or who said what are usually far less important, and if we want to know, we ask. We don't want to sit through a long tale of why or how to get to the what.
Want more detail? No? Stop here. Yes? Keep going.
In books and screenplays, suspense is delicious. It keeps us glued to the screen, or turning the pages of that book. We thrill as we try to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant, and predict how the plot will unfold.
But in workplace communications, any suspense is big trouble. Your communication is just one of hundreds your listeners receive each day. They have neither the interest nor the energy to devote to wading through suspenseful tales to learn how they finally end. They want the end, right now, at the beginning.
More detail? If not, stop. If yes, read on.
Two things In books and screenplays, suspense
is delicious. It keeps us glued
to the screen, or turning the
pages of that book.happen when you withhold a story's end. First, listeners try to guess the end as you go along, just as they would in reading mystery novels or watching movies. And if the story is explaining some bad news, they suspect that bad news is coming. They imagine bad things, and what they imagine is beyond the storyteller's control — often worse than the truth.
Second, because listeners don't know where the story is going, they usually have difficulty distinguishing the more important story elements from the less important. They accumulate questions. Confusion sets in. Confusion leads to misunderstanding; misunderstanding leads to trouble. It's all so avoidable if the communication starts with the end.
One last detail.
A strong aversion to starting at the end might arise from a desire for the rapt attention of listeners. That's fine, if you're employed as an entertainer. If you aren't employed as an entertainer, soon you might not be employed at all. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Begging 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?
- Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
- In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing
misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques
that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
- The Limits of Status Reports: I
- Some people erroneously believe that they can request status reports as often as they like, and including
any level of detail they deem necessary. Not so.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: II
- Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned,
rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- That Was a Yes-or-No Question: II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances
are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no
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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- 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.