I recently received an email from someone I didn’t know. His email could only be described as “War and Peace!” The original printing of the book War and Peace was 1,225 pages long. His message felt like that to me. It was long. It was so long, I sent it back to him and told him this story about communication:
One of the best lessons in communication I received as a young man was given to me by a retired Brigadier General who taught in the Doctoral program at USC. He was an amazing professor who always shared the most incredible stories and taught valuable lessons.
The course was “Management Theory.” He asked us to write a ten-page paper on a specific topic relating to management and to turn it in within the next two weeks. There were only twelve students in the class and we all dutifully showed up with the paper in hand two weeks later. He collected all of our papers and sat down at his desk in front of the class. After skimming through all 12 submissions, he stood up, and handed them all back to us! He then told us to come back with a five-page paper on the same topic. He told us to take out all the fluff and get to the heart of the issue and turn it in next week.
We were furious – but we did it. The next week we came back with the five-page papers. He then went through the same routine, handed them all back and said, “You can cut more. Make it two pages and turn it in next week!” As you might guess, we were incredulous… and we did as we were told.
We came back the following week with our two-page paper. As you might guess – he looked at them and gave them back one last time and said, “Now, make it one page and bring it back next week along with your original ten-page paper.” We were beyond annoyed, but we did as we were told.
We all came back the next week and turned in both papers. He then shared one of the most valuable lessons of my academic training. He said, “During your career, you will be working for people who are incredibly busy. They may ask you for a report on an important topic for the company. They may not have the time to read your long-drawn out papers going through detailed minutiae covering your brilliant recommendations” (I think that might have been sarcasm). He went on to say, “If you can learn to de-obfuscate your writing and boil things down into a simple, easy to digest document – busy people will respond better your work.” He said, “Always create an Executive Summary that bullet points the critical findings, recommendations, or advice. Put that at the front of your longer report. This will give the boss a chance to get an overview of the issue and then allow him or her to go deeper into your findings from the full report.” He also suggested that your summary bullet points make reference to the relevant page or pages that this issue was covered in the full report.
That was incredible advice that has served me well over the years. Your communication doesn’t have to be War and Peace to be effective. Heck, the Gettysburg Address was only 272 words long (yes, shorter than this blog, I know).
This was a great lesson for me. I hope you find it to be a great lesson for you as well.