What is the point?
- It is the #1 action you want to achieve.
- It is the #1 question you want answered.
- It is the most important information you want to convey.
In a chapter on principles of effective writing, the authors of Writing That Works, Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson, make their #1 recommendation: Don’t Mumble. They explain, “Once you’ve decided what you want to say, come right out and say it.”
In journalism, the point begins with the inverted pyramid: a news story leads with the most important information and builds with supporting facts and background. It is said that this form of reporting was initiated by the invention of the telegraph. An example, cited by journalism historian David T.Z. Mindich, is from an Associated Press reporter following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:
To the Associated Press:
Washington, Friday, April 14, 1865.
The President was shot in a theater to-night and perhaps mortally wounded.
The details may follow, but the main point is the bottom line. The discipline in writing for the inverted pyramid forces you to organize your thoughts around the most important information.
(By the way, the inverted pyramid is not universally accepted in journalism. Some argue that it detracts from the storytelling tradition. For more on the history of the inverted pyramid, see the blog Poynter.)
Let’s get to it.
Where Does It Hurt?
In business, whether you are the client or the service provider, the ability to get to the point means people will listen. Getting to the point provides immediate focus. Once focused, additional information is better understood. Say you have an unbearable toothache. You’d probably call your dentist and say something like, “Doctor, please help! My tooth is KILLING ME!” You would not begin by first telling him what you had for breakfast.
In a conference call a good organizer will identify the goal of the call, and focus the group. The small talk that may have begun the call is quickly forgotten.
This is an object lesson when you take your small talk elsewhere. Even as a customer, you risk losing the deal if it takes 10 minutes to get to the point. Too much talk will tag you on the losing side in the Pareto principle—the law of the vital few—that posits that 80% of sales will come from 20% of clients.
You, the Client
Unsure of your point? Consider the outcome you want to accomplish, and spend a few minutes planning how you will present the relevant information. Let’s say you want to know whether you should file for personal bankruptcy. You walk into a lawyer’s office. There’s no charge to talk with an attorney. You want to know options, costs, and next steps. You want answers.
It is in the attorney’s interest to get to the point because they need specific information to help you and they're giving you their time free. And, you need counsel. So, if you are slow to the point, you may get interrupted with a set of focused questions, leading to an informed decision. The farther off-point you are, the less seriously you may be taken, sometimes to the extent that all you get for a response is, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can help you.” Read the following two scenarios to demonstrate the difference.
Scenario 1: The Long Way Home
“Hi, my name is Frank and I lost my job seven months ago. I was working at the feed store down the road, the one in Agland. And, wow, you know that bridge, the one by that diner? It’s been washed out since last fall, and I used to have to drive all the way through Detourville to get to work, at least an extra 15 minutes, except if I got caught behind a school bus. Sometimes it would take me 20 minutes longer. No wait; really it was about 25 minutes. Kinda depends on traffic, you know what I mean? So, I wonder how much extra gasoline that was costing me. I’m sure it was, oh, I don’t know. I used to have a Subaru, that got excellent mileage, but it got rear-ended, and I had to use my sister-in-law’s pick-up truck. And that gets . . . well, it wasn’t really hers, she borrowed it from her son, who’s in jail right now . . .”
Scenario 2: The Path to the Point
“Hi, my name is Frank, and I want to know if I should file for personal bankruptcy. I lost my job seven months ago, and I don’t want to lose my house. My unemployment insurance ended last week, and I have no income. My bills are piling up; I haven’t paid my mortgage or car payment in four months. What do you suggest?”
Welcome To The Situation Room
Listen to CNN for a fine example. To keep their audience, the transition to a new show begins by stating what’s going to happen next. They get right to the point. “Wolf Blitzer and the Situation Room begins NOW.” And it does. It’s the urgency of now.
There is an axiom in public speaking, which applies to the practice of getting to the point. Speakers are advised to make sure the audience knows why they are in attendance. Not what they are going to hear, but something to frame that one piece of crucial knowledge you want to impart. What’s the point? Ask an attendee, and they should be able to give you the number one take-away.
You’ve missed the point when you
- are often asked to get to the point;
- are interrupted with leading questions;
- notice your listener becomes distracted while you are talking;
- are accustomed to hearing others say, I know, I know, I know . . .
- end conversations, meetings, and telephone calls without having accomplished your primary goal
The ability to get to the point, is part of your reputation. People will listen to you. They trust that you have something important to say, and they will listen. Listening is one of the most important parts of effective communication. It leads to action. That’s the point.