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Keep Calm and…Make it Brief


Four Things Winston Churchill can Teach us About Communication

Over the holidays, my wife and I enjoyed seeing Darkest Hour. The film focuses on Winston Churchill’s ascendency to the role of British Prime Minister at one of the most pivotal moments in modern world history. Gary Oldman’s jowly, sputtering performance as the brilliant statesman will surely place the film in the pack of Oscar contenders. What I found most compelling was the insight into Winston Churchill as an obsessive wordsmith and keen communicator. We see him dictating letters and memos while lying in bed and furiously editing speeches in a broadcast booth just moments before the red “on air” bulb illuminates.

A few years ago, I stumbled on this memorandum titled “BREVITY.” After seeing the film, I imagine Churchill dictating this “S E C R E T” document over a plate of eggs and beans and, undoubtedly, still in his bathrobe smoking a cigar:

Winston Churchill wrote (or most likely dictated) this memorandum just a few months after the Miracle of Dunkirk—a massive evacuation of more than 300,000 British and French soldiers on the coast of France. With the war in full swing against Hitler's Third Reich, Churchill was driven to save time "while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking."

The relevance of Churchill's memorandum to modern communications and business presentations is striking. We tend to think of the past as quaint and less complicated than modern life, but it’s obvious “officialese jargon” wasted as much time 78 years ago as it does today.

Briefly, I’d like to glean from this memo some applications for modern business communicators:

“A series of short, crisp paragraphs”

I love the word “crisp” here. I take it to mean sharply focused, like a photographer seeking crispness in an image. Churchill is calling for information to be “set out” in “main points.” Communication is best when it is lean and direct. Always look for ways to ruthlessly edit your communication.

“Set out in an appendix”

They are all too common: presentations packed with spreadsheets, charts, graphs and statistics. Nothing can derail a meeting faster than a sharp-eyed executive wanting to dive “into the weeds” about something “two slides back.” There is a time and place for details and analysis. Keep your presentation or communication on point, consider a post-meeting handout or the promise of an email attachment with background material.

“Headings only – expanded orally”

Look up the definition of “bullet points” and you’ll realize how far we’ve strayed in modern communication. “Items printed in a list” and “most important points” suggest the kind of brevity Churchill was seeking. Slideware programs like PowerPoint have elevated the bullet point to a formatting default. Keyboard-happy presenters hit return and clatter away, allowing the auto-fit text box to scrunch down their text until their final punctuation. Consider moving those full-blown sentences to your notes, get back to the basics of true bullet points and expand on those most important points orally. Suddenly, the audience is no longer reading your slides. Their focus is on you—your message and your expertise.

Woolly-woolly:  Puffed-up language impedes your communication and wastes time.

Woolly-woolly: Puffed-up language impedes your communication and wastes time.

“Woolly phrases…”

For me the word "woolly" brings to mind the little brother, Randy, in A Christmas Story whose mother overdresses him for winter. He can hardly move for all the padding in his snow suit. Churchill is calling out those who would fill their communications with bloated language—unnecessary words and puffed-up phrases. Don't hinder the mobility and energy of your communication with fluff. Your audience is pressed for time. They’ll appreciate an economy of words.

Get to the point.

Finish the meeting early.

Write a three-sentence e-mail.

Eliminate jargon.



Michael CampbellComment