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Business professionals who participate in idea-generation (“brainstorming”) meetings are often asked to use a communication technique called, “headlining.”  Quite simply, it means stating our idea immediately and succinctly (even if, occasionally, somewhat imprecisely?)— before going on to set it up, detail and rationalize it.  In effect, it’s leading with our “punch line.”  Let’s examine headlining as a potentially powerful consultative selling tool.

Leading with our idea or recommendation can seem like an impulsive, disorderly, risky way to sell a proposal; many professionals automatically begin with the “setup”— background, supporting circumstances and elements, etc. — and conclude with the recommendation.  Their goal is to “weave a web” of logic and persuasion so convincing that the resulting recommendation seems uniquely appropriate and unarguable.  Well, maybe so, and maybe not.

The problem with this sequence is that because the client doesn’t know where we’re going, he/she may misunderstand, forget, or just plain not hear much of our setup and rationale.  What’s missed along the way could sabotage our sale.  Isn’t a jigsaw puzzle a lot harder to do if we don’t have a picture of it completed, for reference?  Three headlining applications:

  • Formal presentation:  Make no mistake: beginning by reviewing the client’s needs is always right— because it’s always what the client cares about most.  After that, consider a 3-part presentation format often credited to the US military:  (1) “Tell Them What You’re Going to Tell Them,” (succinct recommendation) (2) “Tell Them” (the detail and rationale) and (3) “Tell Them What You Told Them” (tight summary).  If we telegraph/support/review, isn’t it likely that they’ll get it?  Admittedly, there’s no suspense or drama here, but do we really need that?
  • Email or Letter:  The email’s Subject line or the letter’s Title line contains the recommendation; (a review of client needs and) our proposal’s details and rationale follow in the “body copy.”  If the client already agrees with us, she/he doesn’t even have to read the body copy— a courtesy from us.  If he/she disagrees, our (hopefully convincing) rationale follows; at least, we won’t be making her/him re-read the text, after discovering and disputing our recommendation at the end.
  • Verbal Communication:  Spontaneous talk is the most challenging application of headlining.  Our impromptu spoken headline may not be a precise articulation of the idea; even so, we’re telegraphing the general direction of our proposal.  Next, we (review the client’s needs, and then) precisely define and rationalize our recommendation.  The client may cut the conversation short if she/he readily agrees.

Clearly, headlining isn’t always the right way to offer a recommendation.  Some ideas, if broached immediately, can send the client off into an erroneous inference— and we’ll need to dig ourselves out of the resulting hole.  Further, drama and suspense could help us make some sales, despite the risks.  Headlining is a useful selling skills tool— a “judgment call” that’s well worth considering.

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