Churchill said it best: Make it brief!

I’m reading the latest book by one of my favorite authors, Erik Larson. In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson recounts the many challenges Winston Churchill faced as prime minister of the United Kingdom during World War II.

Germany had already conquered Poland and Czechoslovakia. On Churchill’s very first day in office, Germany invaded Holland and Belgium.

Germany then soon successfully invaded France and the British troops were forced to flee back home through Dunkirk. The Germans started bombing England. The British feared a Nazi invasion would soon follow.

In other words, Churchill had his hands full. He had no time to waste as he worked to defend his country, keep up morale among its citizens, lead its armed forces, find sources for more supplies, increase the production of fighter planes and convince the United States to provide military materials and/or to also enter the war.

Churchill realized the value of brevity and simplicity in communications. He understood how they relate to time saving and clarity (these are the same concepts I teach in my News Writing and Business Writing workshops). For instance, according to Larson:

In a memo to his ministers and their staffs entitled simply “Brevity”, Churchill wrote, “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.”

Churchill insisted his cabinet ministers and their staffs compose their memos with brevity and limit their length to one page or less. “It is slothful not to compress your thoughts,” he said.

Churchill also asked his ministers to improve their reports by replacing cumbersome phrases with a single word. He even cited two examples: “It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…” and “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…”

“Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational,” he wrote. The resulting prose might “at first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving of time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clear thinking,” said the memo.

Churchill also suggested that when composing a memo, the ministers identify their main points with a series of “short, crisp paragraphs”. If a report involved further explanation of complicated issues, Churchill requested the minister include an appendix. Often, he observed, a full report could consist entirely of headings, “which can be expanded orally if needed.”

I love Churchill’s advice! So often in the business world some workers feel the need to write lengthy memos or articles, feeling “more is better.” But today’s busy employee doesn’t have time or inclination to read lengthy communications.

The next time you’re editing something you wrote, remember to think and act like Winston Churchill. Writing with the “less is more” mindset will position you as a communicator who doesn’t waste people’s time.

Want to have Tom present a Business Writing or News Writing workshop to your staff? Contact him to discuss your needs.

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