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Concise writing leads to clear thinking

Concise writing leads to clear thinking

Winston Churchill is famous for being a man who got things done.

Before becoming a politician, Churchill was a journalist and a successful author. It would be fair to say that he knew a thing or two about effective communication.

In 1940 Churchill issued a memo titled “Brevity to his staff, extolling the virtues of concise effective writing.

“To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points…”

“… the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking…”

Winston Churchill encourages brevity

Winston Churchill encourages brevity. Image credit: Minifigures.com.

Wealth is measured in time

I am a strong believer that wealth is actually measured in time, not money.

Steven Pressfield shares that view:

“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.”

Amazon is a company renowned for striving for constant improvement and efficiency. Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying:

“The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a powerpoint presentation, some type of slide show.  In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points.  This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.  And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo…. If you have a traditional ppt presentation, executives interrupt.  If you read the whole 6 page memo, on page 2 you have a question but on on page 4 that question is answered.”

Brad Porter discusses the application of Bezos’ approach in practice:

“First, it requires the team writing the document to really deeply understand their own space, gather their data, understand their operating tenets and be able to communicate them clearly. The second thing it does is a great document enables our senior executives to internalize a whole new space they may not be familiar with in 30 minutes of reading thus greatly optimizing how quickly and how many different initiatives these leaders can review.”

Effective concise communication

The teams I run at client sites follow some simple rules of thumb for effective concise communication:

  1. Emails should be no longer than 5 sentences. If you can’t articulate the ask of your recipient that concisely, then you are wasting their time.
  2. Documents should be no more than about 500 words (1 printed page). If you can’t effectively explain something on a single page then you don’t understand it well enough. There is a reason all those high school essays took the form “Write 500 words on…“!
  3. Slide decks should contain no more than 5 concise slides that:
    • summarise the issue
    • outline the decision required
    • present viable options
    • and make a recommendation.

It is what you say that enables the assembled attendees to make a well informed decision, your slides are merely a memory aide.

Slide decks are not documents, nor are they an alternative to attending the meeting.

Analysis

Slide decks are not an alternative to attending the meeting. Image credit: The Brothers Brick.

Self documentation

Finally if the content of a document will become outdated then writing it is a waste of time.

Living documentation such as Wikis (with version history and change tracking) and diagrams generated from underlying maintained datasets provide a timely representation of how things look right now… the requirements captured at the start of the project should evolve into the user manual at the end of the project.

If you find yourself duplicating content from elsewhere then you are doing it wrong.

Next Steps

  • Consider what value your audience is receiving from investing their time in reading your writing.
  • If your verbosity knows know bounds then draft, edit, and draft again. Steven King’s formula for successful writing is “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%
  • If you liked this post then please share it with your friends.
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