Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 11;   March 18, 2015:

Suspense Is Not Your Friend

by

Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated ideas effectively, avoid suspense.
A studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock

A studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), English film director and producer known as "The Master of Suspense." Although many films tell stories, achieving the levels of suspense Hitchcock achieved requires rare skill. And so it is at work. When the stories we tell at work reserve the ultimate message for the end, and when we lack — as most of us do — the mastery of suspense that great directors possess, the result for the listeners is frustration. Suspense is not your friend.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Creating Toxic Conflict: I  Next Issue

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? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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:

PencilsVirtual Communications: I
Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
The Great WallWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: I
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect it if we know their techniques.
Ancient stairs at ruins in CambodiaThe 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.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesConversation Despots
Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics.
The planet Earth on planet Earth on April 17, 2019Unintended Condescension: II
Intentionally making condescending remarks is something most of us do only when we lose control. But anyone at any time can inadvertently make a remark that someone else experiences as condescending. We explored two patterns to avoid last time. Here are two more.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.