Never bury the lead
In 1987 a talented English graphic artist named Martin Handford hit upon an original idea for a children’s book. What if he could inject some sort of hero into the colourful crowd scenes he’d become famous for drawing?
The result was the now legendary “Wally”, a lanky globetrotter who sports a red and white jumper/beanie combo, a pair of round spectacles and who has the annoying tendency of hiding himself in crowded settings. Just to make the search harder, Handford developed a number of other characters that looked almost identical to Wally. These “red herrings” included Wizard Whitebeard, Wally’s dog Woof, his nemesis Odlaw, and girlfriend Wenda.
Handford’s creation is the perfect metaphor for the modern workplace where, as Dan Heath points out, “the tendency to gravitate toward complexity is perpetually at war with the need to prioritize”. The problem is not necessarily that there’s too much information - the problem is that the more we work with the information, the more we lose direction. Soon, no detail - regardless of whether it’s an Odlaw, Wenda, Woof or Wizard - is too small or insignificant. Soon we’ve chosen noise over signal, welter over Wally.
Is it a winnable war? Though there are no “just so” answers, I’d like to offer a few perspectives.
Priority: singular not plural The first is that we have come to misunderstand the meaning of the word “priority”. In his masterpiece “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”, Greg Mckeown traces the origin of the word back to the 1400s:
“The word was singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start thinking about prioritieS. We reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would be able to have multiple “first” things.”
Yet when everything is a priority, nothing is. We don’t prioritise to get more things done; we do it to get the right things done. We do it to invest our time and energy as wisely as possible, to operate, in Mckeown’s words, at our “highest point of contribution”.
The Inverted Pyramid The second perspective is from the one profession that wrestles with complexity as part of its very job description: Journalism. Come with me to the year 1863. The Civil War is in full swing and you are reporting on one of the many sprawling battles that took place that year. While reporters have permission to use the army telegraph to send their stories back to the newsroom, you are keenly aware that the operators have carte blanche to bump your story (or even part of it) should something more urgent come up. To deal with this unpredictability, you spend 80% of your time crafting the lead paragraph. You use subsequent paragraphs to package less critical detail in decreasing order of importance.
The approach became known as the "Inverted Pyramid” and it’s been the standard approach to news reporting ever since. It’s no longer about the side-stepping the telegraph bottleneck but about helping reporters to separate the critical from the important, the important from the incidental. As a case in point, consider the tragic events that took place on the night of April 15, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre Washington. The New York Herald led with the following:
“This evening at about 9:30 p.m. at Ford's Theatre, President Lincoln was shot in his private box by an assassin. His wife Mary Lincoln was with him”
With hindsight that lead might seem obvious but the story was brimming with red herrings any one of which could have been smuggled into the lead paragraph thus diluting its impact. Instead, subsequent paragraphs revealed that Lincoln had been shot in the head, that he hadn’t died immediately and that his assassin was still at large. Surprisingly, the news that Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward had also been targeted in the same conspiracy was considered so incidental as to be consigned to the fifth paragraph!
The example shows just how painful the act of forced prioritization can be for the writer. Good journalists hone this aspect of their craft to the point of obsession. Don Wycliff, an award winning reporter, says “I’ve always been a believer that if I’ve got two hours to write a story, the best investment I can make is to spend the first hour and forty-five minutes of it getting a good lead, because after that everything will come easily”
The People vs. O.J. Simpson The third and final perspective comes from the O.J. Simpson trial, one of the most famous courtroom dramas in U.S. history. Starting in November 1994 and ending in October 1995 it ran for 11 months. When the time came for closing arguments Simpson’s Lawyer Johnnie Cochran summed up mountains of evidence with one single-minded and memorable sentence. Earlier in the trial, Simpson appeared to have difficulty putting on a glove that had been found at the crime scene and that was stained with the blood of both victims. “If the glove doesn’t fit you must acquit”, became a recurring soundbite of the Simpson trial. The glove, in short, was Cochran’s Wally.
Next time you are wrestling with complexity, ask yourself the age-old and all-encompassing question: WWJD? (The “J” is for “journalists”). The Inverted Pyramid is about separating the critical from the important and the important from the incidental. Remember, there can only be one Wally. Or, as Greg Mckeown likes to say: “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
Greg Mckeown. Essentialism. The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Dan and Chip Heath: Made to Stick