Get to the Point


Delivering news to busy people is hard to get right. When we try to explain test results or make recommendations, we often hear "Get to the point!" or "Spare me the details." But they don't like it when we omit the details, either. Usually, it isn't about a difference in the level of detail--it's about differences in the order in which people want to receive the information. In this column, Rick Brenner and Danny R. Faught help you deal with these differences.

It's fun to tell a story--to reveal the flow of events bit by bit, peek down a blind alley now and then, throw in some false leads, and finish with an unpredictable and memorable conclusion. This is how great novels, screenplays, and even some TV scripts are written. Perhaps you use this approach when you report a bug or your status, make recommendations, or ask for resources.

When you have to deliver a message, especially to people who don't want to hear it, suspense isn't your friend--directness is.

Reveal all the plot twists at the beginning by summarizing your main points, and then follow up with your supporting material. This is difficult for us storytellers to do. You might feel like you need to say "SPOILER WARNING!" when you reveal the climax of the story, but you won't be spoiling the message; you'll be communicating more effectively because you won't be dragging your audience through the emotional turmoil of following a story without knowing the point.

This approach is, more or less, the style journalists use when writing news stories. They call it the inverted pyramid, which you can picture as a triangle with the widest part, representing the most important points, at the top. The story, possibly apocryphal, of how the inverted pyramid style came about is that journalists during the US Civil War competed for scarce telegraph time when wiring their stories back to the newspapers. The telegraph was under military control, and journalists knew it could be preempted at any time during a transmission. Using the inverted pyramid ensured that if they were interrupted, the part of the story that did get through contained the most important information. Journalists still use the inverted pyramid style to give editors the option of shortening the article--starting with the least important information at the end--to make room for advertisements or other stories.

Since testers are often in the role of delivering news, the inverted pyramid style is a good model to follow. When you use the inverted pyramid, you're still communicating the main points even to the people who don't read or listen to the whole message. That's important because most of the people in our audiences are overloaded and time-bound, just like the military telegraph lines in the Civil War. Getting to the point quickly--or even better, leading with the point--helps you deliver four kinds of messages:

Bug Reports
Hone your headline-writing skills to emphasize the customer impact of the bug in the first five words of the one-line summary. Don't bury important details at the bottom of the detailed description. For example, if you include a twenty-five-line stack trace from a crash, put all of the important information above the stack trace.

Status Reports and Test Execution Reports
Readers of your reports probably include two or more management levels. Write an executive summary that concisely covers all your main points. This greatly increases the odds that upper-level managers get the message, and lower-level mangers will appreciate your straightforward communication. Put supporting information in an appendix.

Recommending Next Steps or Process Changes
Because nobody really likes change, presenting recommendations usually stimulates attachment to the status quo. Instead of listing requirements in a logical order--current situation, reasoning, recommendations--outline your recommendations first and very briefly. Follow with a summary of the current situation, and close with the reasoning that led to your recommendations.

Asking for Resources
Unlike the three items above, we often ask for resources in person, rather than in writing. Leading with the point is even more important in person or on the telephone than it is in writing, because oral communications are synchronous, and synchronous communication time is expensive for everyone. It's also important to carefully craft requests sent via email, because your request is probably buried among dozens of other urgent messages. Start by asking for what you need, follow up with a description of the current situation, and then describe what happens if the recipient opts not to supply what you're asking for. If you're not sure what you need, first focus on explaining the problem you want to solve. Then you can work together to first make sure you've found the root problem before you go looking for possible solutions.

Your colleagues and managers are better able to make decisions when they can easily focus their mental energy on what you're really trying to say. Use the inverted pyramid approach to help the recipients of your message get your point.


About the author

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.