Columbo: What Can a
Bumbling, Inarticulate Los Angeles Cop Teach Us about Effective
by Philip Yaffe
Decade after decade, perhaps the
most popular type of television program has been the detective story,
the traditional "who dun it?", presumably because people
enjoy being held in suspense. It is therefore instructive to note
that one of the most popular TV detective shows of all time has
no suspense to it whatsoever.
Remember "Columbo"? Reversing the conventional format,
this show tells us exactly "who dun it" within the first
five or ten minutes. The remainder of the show then invites us to
accompany the dishevelled, seemingly bumbling Los Angeles cop (played
by Peter Falk) as he bit by bit exposes the murderer's errors until
the culprit has no option but to confess.
If people love being held in suspense, why has this decidedly un-suspenseful
series been so unfailingly successful? Because people also love
clarity. If they are going to be led on a journey, they want to
know where they are going and why they are going there before they
set off. You are probably now wondering, "Where is all this
TV nostalgia leading me?" Quite simply, to a crucially important
principle about writing and public speaking.
i.e. those who produce short stories, novels, television
scripts, film scripts and other forms of entertainment
have a choice. They can be mysterious at the beginning,
revealing all only at the end (the conventional approach).
Or, like Columbo, they can reveal all at the beginning
and then delineate the process that leads to the denouement.
i.e. those of us who produce memos, reports, proposals,
newsletters, textbooks, training manuals, research papers,
etc., don't have this choice. Unless we tell our readers
or listeners exactly where we are taking them and why
they should want to go there, they are unlikely to come
This is because fiction and non-fiction serve two very different
By simplest definition, the fundamental purpose of creative
(fiction) writing is to amuse and entertain. In other words,
people come to a work of fiction expecting to be drawn in and
are willing to help you in the task. After all, who doesn't
want to be amused and entertained?
This is the conventional "who dun it" approach.
The fundamental purpose of expository (non-fiction) writing
is to inform and instruct. Most people don't relish being informed
and instructed. In general, they would prefer to be doing something
else. If you want them to follow where you lead, you must make
it worth their while from the very beginning. In short, you
must be certain that they know almost instantaneously where
you wish to lead them and what benefit they might get from coming
This is the Columbo approach. In practice, this means
that before you type a single word, you need to answer a fundamental
question: "Why the hell would anyone want to read what
I am going to write, or listen to what I am going to say?"
If you can't give at least one or more good answers to this
question, you have no business striking a key.
But caution. Don't fall into the trap of saying, "Well,
they should want to read this or listen to this because it's
important to them." This is viewing the world from your
point of view, not theirs. In general, you cannot force people
to read what they don't want to read or listen to what they
don't want to hear. To be truly successful, you must demonstrate
to your audience that what you have to say is important, not
simply shout it. Once they decide to follow you of their own
free will, success is almost guaranteed.
This crucial point is perhaps best expressed in what I immodestly
call Yaffe's Law. "If you give people what they want
first, they are likely to accept anything else you want them
to have. If you give them what you want first, they are likely
not to accept anything at all."
Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street
Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches
a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium.
His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple
Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional
is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (amazon.com). For further information, contact:
Philip Yaffe, Brussels, BelgiumTel: +32 (0)2 660 0405