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.
writers, 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.
writers", 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
This is because fiction and non-fiction
serve two very different purposes.
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
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 along.
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:
Email: [email protected]