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Teaching ● January 2015

Give away the punchline

We all know that feeling after we’ve read a masterfully-written novel or watched a well-scripted film. Throughout the story, we were led to believe one thing, until the big plot twist. When we thought we had the picture mapped out, the story takes a complete turn once again. “You won’t believe how it ends!” we cry.

A good story is often about the art of creating suspense. Confusion and misdirection are at the core of the craft. A suspense writer’s goal is to have you believe you know how all the pieces fit, but ultimately realize you were solving the wrong puzzle.

We also see this style of storytelling in almost all forms of written and verbal communication. Whether it’s the heartwarming news piece, the comedian’s joke, or the simple sharing of a story amongst friends at a bar, we tend to save the punchline, keeping the listeners captivated until the very end. I think we’re almost pre-conditioned to tell stories in this way.

But, there is one form of communication in which saving the punchline does more harm than good. When we are teaching someone, the paradigm needs to be flipped. Give away the punchline first, then focus backwards on the details of how you got there. If the punchline isn’t clear, your audience will be listening intently to facts but unsure of where the story is going to lead. While this makes for great suspense, it doesn’t make for a great way to learn.

Plot twists like 1999’s The Sixth Sense make for great films, but not-so-great teaching sessions

Unlike storytelling, your goal in teaching shouldn’t be to add suspense. When we’re learning something new, the potholes and forks in the road will be there naturally; You don’t need to create more of them. It’s our jobs as teachers to smooth the pavement out as much as we can. To that end, the first step is to make your talking points the first points, not the last ones.

Giving away your points first helps the audience and the teacher collectively stay on track. If you start to veer off on a tangent, well, everyone knows you’re veering off on a tangent. Without knowing what the punchline is in the beginning, your students may not know whether that inconsequential, tangential point you had to get off your chest was important to remember or not. This, by the way, is often the reason why “experts” have trouble teaching. But, we’re now getting slightly off on a tangent.

Another added benefit to giving away the punchline at the beginning? We can leave some loose ends in the explanation until next time. If we don’t have time to fill in all the gaps, we can more easily pick up the conversation where we left off. Next time, your student might say “from what I remember, you were teaching me why using SELECT * on all my database queries may lead to unnecessary overhead, and were in the middle of comparing two SQL statements with the performance profiler” rather than “you were showing me some metrics about two SQL statements, but I’m not sure what we were trying to figure out.”

This small bit of advice may sound obvious at face-value. But, consider this the next time you find yourself a little lost while listening to someone else teach you something. Why were you lost? It could be that you weren’t handed the spoiler alert at the beginning.

Originally published Jan 27, 2015 at DoneDone. Go to the next essay in Teaching, “Teach abstraction through concreteness”.