Don’t Bury the Lead

Here’s the lead: In challenging situations, you’re probably taking too long to get to your point — and it’s creating unnecessary anxiety for you and the people you’re talking to.

In journalism, the lead of a story is the first sentence or two. A good lead tells the reader what the story is about and where it’s headed. A journalist failing to mention the most important parts of the story in the opening sentences is “burying the lead.”

The same is true in meetings and conversations. Let’s say you must cut your team’s budget by twenty percent. If you start your team meeting by saying, “As you know we’ve been facing some difficult financial times. The company has worked hard to cut costs and increase sales. We’ve streamlined many of our processes . . . ,” by the time you’ve reached the end of your third sentence, your direct reports may already be on their Blackberries and iPhones updating their resumes.

In difficult situations, leaders often bury the lead because they think that easing into the topic will make people more comfortable. It doesn’t. The longer you go without stating the lead, the higher others’ (and your) anxiety will rise (the red line in the graph).

Rather than turn your meeting into a suspense movie with mounting anxiety, reduce the drama by starting with the lead: “I’ve called this meeting because we need to cut twenty percent from your budgets.” Yes, people will probably experience greater shock at the beginning of the meeting, but their anxiety will more quickly drop (the blue line in the graph). They won’t be spending a lot of time guessing where you’re headed. That means you and they will have more time to discuss the details and work on solving the problem.

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