If you asked me what my favorite type of fruit was, I could tell you in two ways.
Way #1: “Well, I like fruits with seeds. Sometimes they’re sweet; sometimes they’re sour. They have green leaves on the top. They’re pretty small, too.”
You might respond, “You mean a strawberry?”
I’d say yes, and you’d know my answer.
Or, I could tell you another way:
Way #2: “It’s a strawberry.”
Listening to the first answer is frustrating. After you figure it out it’s a strawberry you might say something like “why the hell didn’t you just tell me it was a strawberry?!”
But in the workplace, we take the first approach all the time in sharing our findings from our work.
With a simple question like a fruit, it seems obvious that you should just tell the person the name of the fruit. But when it comes to work, we are dealing with much more complex questions like, “How should we allocate our marketing budget?” or “What is the best way to communicate our product changes to the customer?” And when you are responsible for figuring these things out you end up spending a lot of time doing analysis, research, interviews, and then structuring your findings to communicate to other people in your organization.
You can’t just tell them the answer briefly.
Or can you?!!
In consulting, I was taught to start with the answer.
It feels weird because of a tendency I call book-report thinking. The tendency to feel like you need to “prove” to managers or senior leaders that you spend a lot of time working on something. Part of this comes from insecurity but another part comes from the reality that you went through your own extended learning journey with the information. If you spend twenty hours diving deep into the data, it can feel like you are hiding things by skipping to the “answer.”
But from the listener’s perspective, if you are taking them down a rabbit hole of detailed numbers and information it can be tedious and frustrating. As long as you are trying to build a strong relationship with your specific audience, you want to seek to resolve the tension in their mind about what I call the “so what?”
Details matter, of course, but people often don’t want to stick around for them unless you’ve laid out a compelling high-level vision for what the reader can expect. Almost all great stories begin with a high-level “hook” that creates suspense, gives context, or creates tension. Consider one of the best books of all time, Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
While there’s not much detail in this passage it actually gives you a rather broad and inviting summary about what you are about to read.
In business communication, the high-level context is the “so what?” – This is the information that tells the audience of your message and why they should pay attention.
Don’t say, “Here is the financial information.” Say, “Given the recent challenges on our major product lines, this analysis will show the two major pressures that have put pressure on profitability.” When I give feedback to people on writing and presentations, I often just ask them, “What are you really trying to say?” Whatever they tell me I then respond with, “Just say that!”
Too often in the workplace, people say what they think they should say. This is a race to the bottom of jargon-filled empty language where everyone just proving they they know how to talk but don’t know how to think. My saying what you actually mean and why it matters, it becomes easy to stand out and be recognized for doing great work.
So remember. Start from the top. Tell people why it matters.
Do you have a toolkit for business problem solving? I created Think Like a Strategy Consultant as an online course to make the tools of strategy consultants accessible to driven professionals, executives, and consultants. This course teaches you how to synthesize information into compelling insights, structure your information in ways that help you solve problems, and develop presentations that resonate at the C-Level. Click here to learn more or if you are interested in getting started now, enroll in the self-paced version ($497) or hands-on coaching version ($997). Both versions include lifetime access and all future updates.