Churchill's Little Secret: See to it That Your Reports are Shorter.

As the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over southern England, prime minister Winston Churchill found time on 9th August 1940 to address a memorandum to the war cabinet lamenting that people sent him wordy reports.

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

I ask my colleagues and their staffs to see to it that their reports are shorter."

Were Churchill still alive today he might not be terribly surprised to see that that air forces today are equipped with stealthy jet fighters and remotely piloted drones, but perhaps he would be disappointed that more than seventy years later we are still struggling with the same problem.

There are many ways to make written communication more effective but one that will almost always work is to keep your messages shorter. Short messages are easier to read, easier to understand and easier to interpret correctly. Write 500 words when 200 would do and many people will scan the text and might miss a key word or point.

Writing brief messages is actually harder than writing long ones, but if you want people to act based on your messages it is worth the effort. Sometimes great expenditure of effort trying to formulate a winning influencing strategy is undone simply because the busy person scanning messages on their smartphone misses a key sentence.

But what is curious about this message is that at the time it was classified SECRET. Perhaps this was simply because all messages from the prime minister were kept out of the public eye so that they would not be mined by enemy intelligence services for useful information. But this is a secret that everyone should be reminded about. See to it that your reports are shorter.

If you'd like to read the entire text of the message click on this image. But don't expect a very long tutorial. Churchill tended to walk the talk and kept his communications brief.

Messages like this that are limited to a single page are inevitably more effective than a longer document simply because people are more likely to read them. Remember this fact next time that you write anything.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

Andrew Hennigan provides lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing about effective communication including writing and public speaking. For more information email or call 0046 730 894 475.


Anonymous said…
Churchill was famous for his love of brevity. He often asked members of the cabinet to brief him using only a few sentences.

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