Brevity — Winston Churchill.
I recently read Andrew Roberts’ fantastic biography, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. It mentioned Churchill’s request that reports should be condensed to one page. I searched for more information but only found an interesting memorandum he wrote during WWII called “Brevity”. Here’s an image of the original and a reproduction of the text to make it easier to read.
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.
I ask my colleagues and their staff to see to it that their reports are shorter.
The aim should be reports which set out the main points in a series of short, crisp paragraphs.
If a report relies on detailed analysis of some complicated factors, or on statistics, these should be set out in an appendix.
Often the occasion is best met by submitting not a full-dress report, but an ‘aide-memoire’ consisting of headings only, which can be expanded orally if needed.
Let us have an end of such phrases as these:
‘It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations’, or ‘Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect’. Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.
Reports drawn up on the lines I propose may first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.’
Coincidentally, I was reading an interesting paper called “How to write reports in plain English” which included Churchill’s memorandum.
I wrote about simple language in my second essay on this website entitled On Simplicity: How We Write.
I identified two reasons why complexity spirals out of control in bureaucracies. I observed a link between how much consultants get paid and how verbose they are. Writing long and complex documents can appear to be a sign of expertise and justify their fees. However, whether the ideas and strategies are easy to understand and implement is often overlooked.
Complexity can also mask incompetence. If you don’t know what you’re saying, saying it in 19 pages of long-form text is a great way to hide this fact.
Critics often complain that writing succinctly means sacrificing nuance and detail. However, this is what appendixes are for. Refer to the data and any extra information that could be useful. Let the reader decide if they want to spend more time studying the details.
When writing a report, make a strong recommendation. It’s not enough to simply list the pros and cons for each option and say it’s a complex matter. You must commit—this is what you’re getting paid for.
All this shifts the burden from the reader to the writer. Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
There is a kernel of truth in this. Ensuring that your writing has high information density takes more time than simply dumping all your thoughts onto a page.
The world is becoming increasingly complex. We must resist being overwhelmed by this complexity.
We need emails, reports, and strategies that are shorter, clearer, and more direct.