School: Make sure it’s long enough
I remember in grade school getting an assignment to do a “report” on a topic or a book. Part of the assignment was always the length.
“Make sure it’s two pages single spaced”.
Kids would struggle to make it long enough, using extra large margins, leaving a big gap under the title, and/or by writing really big.
Then in high school we advanced from reports to term papers which had to be 25 or 50 pages, typed, double spaced, and include supported research for every fact. You had to show how you built your case for the point you were making as part of the paper.
This approach continued into college: Complete, accurate, long. Show your research.
Business: I’m bored, get to the point
Then you get into business, and the last thing anyone wants to do is read a long report filled with the detailed archaeology about how you got to the point you are making.
Effective, written business communications are all about being brief and highly relevant to your audience.
For many, the school approach is a hard habit to break because this was drilled into us (in America, anyway) as the right and only way to do it.
I see business presentations and documents all the time that remind me of school term papers. They are too long, and not tuned for any audience in particular. They are a long march through detailed, accurate facts, with background data to support those facts along the way.
Proposals are presented as though the audience is a professor with no stake in the content, who will give a grade on the hypothetical completeness of the argument, and the grammar and punctuation in the document — instead of a busy executive who has a personal decision to make on whether or not to bet the business on your idea.
Accurate vs. Effective
You can be 100% accurate and 0% effective in your communications.
To be effective, first and foremost be as brief as possible.
If you are asked to share information or create a proposal, think, how can I create the most compelling case in the fewest amount of words, screens, pages or slides?
Also, always create version of your content that fits on one page. You can create more pages for a “complete version”, discussion or backup — but if you want your communication to get read and acted on, also have a one-page version.
Every time I had to deliver a business plan or strategy document that was 50-100 pages, I always created a communication document about that plan that fit on one page. Often it included a chart or a picture.
Here are some steps for brief and compelling communications:
Thinking and Preparation
1. Who is your audience?
2. What do they care about? (Remember, the stuff they really care about might have nothing to do with you.)
3. How do they talk about what they care about? What are the exact words they use to describe it?
4. Use their words to create a dictionary of the words you are allowed to use.
Outline for an effective executive communication
1. The Desired Outcome: Decide what the outcome of the communication needs to be. What should happen afterwards, as a result of this communication?
e.g. Outcome = They have confidence in you, and you get the funding.
2. The big opening: Create a hook for your communications by having the first thing you write be something the audience cares about – Trick: use only their words from the dictionary you created.
e.g. Your words: “Web self-service proposal” becomes — from their dictionary: “A plan to address the revenue shortfall in Europe”
3. Get to the point! State your desired outcome up front, but — hang it on the hook you created in your opening (so your audience will also care about your desired outcome)
e.g. This presentation shows that we can increase revenue by 10-20% in Europe by improving our web-self service — even if nothing else changes.
4. Make the choices really clear.
I can’t tell you, as an executive how many presentations I sat through where 45 minutes into a 1 hour presentation I had to ask, What are trying to tell me? What are you expecting me to do or take from this?
Don’t make your audience work hard to figure out what you need them to know, or want them to do. Spell it out for them.
e.g. We need your approval to extend the contract on 2 people, and to invest $225k. The ROI is in 1 quarter.
5. Be brief. Describe the plan and ROI as briefly as possible. Put all the data about how you got to this answer or recommendation in backup. Never take people through your process unless you are asked to do so.
6. The big finish: Ask for something to happen that will drive the outcome.
Delivering the Communication
Create a one page summary version that is the first page. Use a picture, block diagram or chart if possible.
Make the whole thing as short as possible so it contains the information it needs but no more. Offer more information upon request.
Before the meeting or presentation, distribute summary with an email that is very brief (so it gets read now, not ignored or filed for later) and has the action requested in the subject line. It also helps if none of the sentences wrap to a second line.
Subject: Action Requested: Need Your Decision by Friday (Europe Revenue)
I have attached the plan to address the revenue shortfall in Europe.
The first page is a one-page summary showing two choices.
FYI: I recommend choice A.
Action Requested: I need your decision by Friday.
Thanks so much.
(I have additional information about this if you have questions.)
Sell Your Ideas
Don’t let your own need for completeness shoot you in the foot. You need to sell your ideas, not just document them.
And then you need to take responsibility to close the deal and get the outcome.
What do you think?
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor.
She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)