Brevity, According to Winston Churchill

winston churchillMy colleagues and I speak and write all the time about the importance of getting to the point. We talk about the importance of respecting your audience’s time, managing their attention span, and how our fast-paced 21st century world makes this skill a critical one.

It turns out that a pretty famous guy, Winston Churchill, agrees with us. Thanks to our good friend, Timothy Post, who read a recent blog entry here and sent us the link to this gem of a memo, dated 9 August 1940. The memo was written by (or at least dictated by) Winston Churchill, at the time the Prime Minister of England.

And in this memo, Mr. Churchill implores his colleagues, and their staffs, to respect each other’s time and energy spent “looking for the essential points.” But rather than try to do Mr. Churchill’s directive justice through paraphrase, let me simply get to the point, and quote him directly:

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 or 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.

Reports drawn up on the lines I propose may at 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.

Exactly! Just like Mr. Churchill said.

Thanks Tim, for sending this along!

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One Response to Brevity, According to Winston Churchill

  1. A little context may be helpful:

    1. This was written on August 9, 1940 – After the battle of Dunkirk (May 26 to June 4, 1940) and in the midst of the opening phase of the Battle of Britain (Hitler ordered Goering and the Luftwaffe to clear the skies of the RAF as a condition to Operation Sea Lion – the invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany).

    2. The memo was designated “Secret”- its decimation was limited to the War Cabinet. In other words, WSC viewed its content as essential to the war effort.

    3. WSC’s conclusion is that “Brevity” saved time and aided in clear thinking – both absolutely vital when communication is literally a matter of “life and death”.

    Here’s a memorable, concise phrase from WSC speech a mere nine days later (August 20, 1940):

    ”Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

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