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Tips From Times Of Isolation #4

Do you remember me discouraging you from reading self-help books (except mine of course) on leadership? I’ve encouraged you instead to read biographies of acknowledged leaders. Here’s a wonderful example of why I say that. There’s a new biography of Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister. It’s called The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. He’s written five best sellers. The following excerpt captures everything I’ve pushed on conciseness and the resulting impact on perceptions of leadership. Please tell the folks you forward this to that the two major revelations here are (1) what he’s suggesting is a sign of a good leader, and (2) writing concisely will make you a better thinker.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Churchill’s approach to leadership was ability to switch tracks in an instant and focus earnestly on things that any other prime minister would have found trivial. Depending on one’s perspective, this was either an endearing trait or a bedevilment. To Churchill everything mattered. On Friday, August 9, for example, amid a rising tide of urgent war matters, he found time to address a minute to the members of the War Cabinet on a subject dear to him: the length and writing style of the reports that arrived in his black box everyday.

Headed, appropriately enough, by the succinct title “BREVITY,” the minute began: “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.”

He set out four ways for his ministers and their staffs to improve their reports. First, he wrote, reports should “set out the main points in a series of short, crisp paragraphs.” If a report involved discussion of complicated matters or statistical analysis, this should be placed in an appendix.

Often, he observed, a full report could be dispensed with entirely, in favor of an aide-memoire “consisting of headings only, which can be expanded orally if needed.”

Finally he attacked the cumbersome prose that so often marked official reports. “Let us have an end to phrases such as these, “he wrote, and quoted two offenders:

“It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…” “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…”

He wrote, “Most of these wooly 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.”

The resulting prose, he wrote, “may 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.”

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