"To do our work, we all have to read a mass of paper. Nearly all of them are too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points."
Sound familiar? It could be a complaint made by anyone who has to read memos to make decisions. But that complaint wasn't made by a company executive yesterday. It was made by Winston Churchill on August 9th, 1940, as Britain was facing its darkest hour against Nazi Germany.
Overwhelmed by long-winded reports that he had to read before making a decision, the British Prime Minister issued a single-page memo to the War Cabinet with a one-word title: "Brevity."
The memo had four points:
1. Officials should "set out the main points in a series of short, crisp paragraphs."
2. Statistics and "detailed analysis" should be laid out separately in an appendix.
3. Instead of writing a complete report, officials should try to produce an "aide-memoire" consisting only of headings that they can explain orally.
4. Writers should cut the padding and use conversational language.
That advice is more than seventy years old, and it's just as sound today as it ever was. If anything, the situation for decision makers today is worse than ever. We're overwhelmed by white papers, reports, PDFs, ebooks and Web pages. We have an entire Internet that we can search for information as we research a market, and that's before we've even opened our email. Inbox zero? Zero chance.
Anyone can now put up a Web page, write a blog post or publish their own book on Kindle. Email threads go on and on, and drag in more people. Our problem isn't that we don't know enough to make smart decisions. It's that it's so hard to pull out the exact information we need. And even harder to do it quickly.
We can all do something about that. Churchill's memo is a great example of how to get across an idea. Each point is numbered. Each sentence gets straight to the point. The entire memo is no more than a page. You can read the whole thing in less than two minutes and come away with a clear understanding of what you have to do and why you have to do it.
When we write emails to colleagues and partners, create reports that we want to publish or produce sales copy for products, we should be following Churchill's advice. Get right to the point. Cut the jargon. Write as though we're talking. Include plenty of headlines so that readers can skim and still understand.
And we can pick up the phone. That's not going to work for every piece of communication but if we treat readers as though they're leaders who have giant decisions to make quickly, we'll save everyone's time and energy, create less work for ourselves, and land more sales.