Start with the punchline, please

I had two half hour conversations today that were completely upside-down.

In both cases I was talking to people I didn’t know very well, and I had agreed to (not set up) the calls.  Both people were smart, capable, and successful, which is what made the conversations that much more perplexing.

In retrospect, if I were to draw up an agenda for the call it would look something like this:

Minutes 1-2        Introductions and pleasantries

Minutes 3-15     Background information by the caller

Minutes 15-20  Discussion of potential synergies / overlap

Minute 21           By the way, I also called to tell you….. (the punchline)

Please, please, please, reorder this agenda and put the punchline upfront (in minute 3)!  Tell me why we’re talking at the start of the conversation.

For example, let’s say you’re having an informational interview.  Respect the time and intelligence of the person you’re calling and start out by saying, “I’m really interested in the sector you work in, and I’m trying to learn more about how I might transition from my current role.”  That’s so much more helpful than pretending you’re not looking for a job.

Similarly, if you’re trying to create a business partnership, why not lead off with, “So-and-so suggested we talk because, even though we’re in different lines of business, there’s a real overlap between the types of people who are interested in what we both do.  I’d like to explore that overlap, but first why don’t I tell you more about our organization so you have a little background?”

This sounds obvious, but so often people “bury the lead” of their story and lose their audience in the process.  This happens in presentations, emails, conversations, you name it.

No one wins if you drone on about all your thinking, your deductive process, your analysis, and then say, “So what this all means is…”  You’ve lost me by then.

Here’s why I think this is harder to do than it looks:

  1. People are sometimes nervous to ask for things. The padding up front is a great way to stall.
  2. Being direct, but doing it with grace, is tricky. If you want to ask for something, be direct, but don’t be so direct/blunt that you put someone off.  (and if your ultimate ask is for someone’s investment or their business, you don’t necessarily lead with that ask.  You start with asking for their time, attention and consideration).
  3. It ain’t the same every time. Doing this in the right way also depends on who you’re talking to, your relationship with them, their personality type, culture, etc.
  4. People confuse building rapport with sharing information. Building a rapport is very important;  but this is not the same thing as sharing a bunch of random information, which is potentially distracting without the right context.

When someone puts the punchline at the end, you find yourself having a whole conversation that communicates something like: “Ignore the man behind the curtain and pay attention to this semi-interesting, semi-distracting stuff I have to say first.  This will show that I’m smart and credentialed and doing important stuff, and it will make you more likely to accept what I’m asking of you once I get around to it.”

Sure, I’m interested in what you have to say and all the great work you do.  But the man behind the curtain is often the whole point, so let’s both acknowledge he’s there and get on with it.

If I know nothing about why we’re talking, think about how hard I have to work to make sense of what you’re saying.  While you’re going on about who you are, what your organization does, what’s been going on in the last three months, I’m sitting there trying to figure out “What part of this story matters?”

Pretty soon, you’ll lose me.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

On the flip side, if you find yourself the victim of a buried punchline conversation, the time to perk up is when you hear ANY sentence that starts with:

“By the way…”

“Oh, and one other thing…”

“I’m not saying that…”

…or any other big disclaimer.

That’s the verbal billboard that screams: WHAT I’M ABOUT TO SAY IS THE WHOLE POINT OF OUR CONVERSATION!!

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2 Responses to Start with the punchline, please

  1. Pingback: Argumentative writing | Sam Strasser

  2. Pingback: Ask 3 questions to practice listening « Sasha Dichter’s Blog

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