Off the Shelf: No School on Thursday

Nora Ephron, the writer of When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle tells a great story from her days in school that illustrates one of the most essential principles of communication.

The teacher who changed my life was my journalism teacher, whose name was Charles Simms. … I had already decided that I was going to be a journalist. … But Mr. Simms really inspired my passion for journalism. He got up on the first day of class, went to the blackboard, and wrote “Who, what, where, why, when, and how,” which are the six things that have to be in the lead of any newspaper story. Then he did what most journalism teachers do—he dictated a set of facts to us, and then we were all meant to write the lead that was supposed to have “who, what, where, why, when, and how” in it.


The facts he dictated went something like this: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago.” We all sat at our typewriters and wrote a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, “Anthropologist Margaret Mead and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school, Kenneth L. Peters, announced today.”


We were very proud of ourselves, and we gave the leads to Mr. Simms. He looked at what we had written and tore them into tiny bits and tossed them into the wastebasket. And he said, “The lead to this story is: ‘There will be no school on Thursday.'” It was this great epiphany moment for me about the essence of journalism. I thought, “Oh my God, it is about the point! It is about figuring out what the point is.” And I just fell in love with journalism at that moment. I fell in love with the idea that underneath, if you sifted through enough facts, you could get to the point, and you had to get to the point.

Although this lesson was initially learned in the context of journalism, it also applies to other forms of communication. Too often, a communicators’ main point (what in The Science of Speaking I call the “thesis”) ends up being like Ephron’s classmates’ original leads. While they generally succeed in communicating something, far too often, they miss the point and fail to make a greater impact.

Therefore, whenever you are preparing a speech, make sure that you don’t just present the facts, but that you sift through the facts to get to the point, presenting a clear, concise, relevant thesis.

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