Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 11;   March 18, 2015: Suspense Is Not Your Friend

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

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans SnydersMudfights
When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
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Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
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.
Secretary Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and Administrator Michael BrownWhen Stress Strikes
Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
A New England stone wallHow to Misunderstand Somebody Else
Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand. Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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