In August 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged, Winston Churchill sat down at his desk and wrote a now-famous memo to his staff titled “Brevity”.
“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. I ask my colleagues and their staffs to see to it that their reports are shorter.”
Churchill went on to suggest a few tips to cut the wordcount — using succinct summaries to highlight the key points, putting detailed analysis into appendices, and replacing “officialese jargon” with shorter, more conversational phrasing.
“The saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking,” he concluded.
Churchill was right to be frustrated by the reports landing on his desk. Verbose and full of muddled thinking, they were dimming everyone’s faculties at a time when they needed to be razor sharp.
Many business leaders will share Churchill’s frustration. Just look at board packs and you’ll see what we mean. They’re among the most important documents a business produces but board reports are often so full of noise that finding the vital signals in them is next to impossible. According to research we’ve conducted with the Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland, close to a third of directors believe that their board papers are a hindrance and 80% rate their board pack as “weak” or “poor”.
The same problem is often felt by the wider organization too, with layer upon layer of reporting creating thick fog from the board and executive committee downwards. No wonder that poor communication is described as the “silent killer of big companies”. It makes it hard to see what matters and even harder to get things done.
Why do businesses need to get better at communication?
If you want to build an enduringly successful business, you need a team that’s capable of converting its insights and ideas to action. After all, there’s no point building a team that can think well if their thinking goes nowhere.
They need to be able to get their thinking out into the open and then get everyone on board with it by expressing themselves with consistent clarity and impact.
The problem is that communicating well is difficult and most of us are not very good at it — even at the highest levels of business. We learn bad communication habits, disguised as best practice, from an early age. The wrong rules are drilled into us at school and then reinforced at work.
The good news is that habits can be unlearned. So, let’s throw those dud rules out and replace them with some new ones that work.
What does communication best practice look like?
Over the past 15 years, we’ve worked with thousands of executives and hundreds of organizations to develop the QDI Principle, a methodology for high-quality thinking and writing.
When you write your next management report or prepare a presentation for your colleagues, try following these three simple QDI Principle rules — and see how much more your thinking shines.
1. Put the bottom line up front to make the key messages crystal clear
Introduction, analysis, conclusion. Throughout our lives we’re taught to deliver key messages and sum everything up at the end of our work. But vital information needs to be shouted from the rooftop, not hidden in the haystack.
Instead, put the bottom line up front to help your audience lock onto your key messages. This means starting with a punchy, pithy executive summary that directly answers the questions on their mind.
Give the “in a nutshell” answer to these questions first and treat each one like an elevator pitch to a bored 15-year-old. If you only had 10 seconds to explain what you think and why they should care, what would you say?
2. Write like a human to make your content easy to follow
To get your message across, don’t try too hard to sound smart. When we do, we start using long sentences, multi-syllable words, and jargon — all of which place extra strain on our working memory, making our writing hard to process.
Instead, use short, simple words and sentences. This will make your writing easier for others to digest and make you sound smarter too. Countless studies across countries and cultures, from Princeton to the University of Tokyo, have found that if you ask someone to score the intelligence of an author based on a passage of text, the authors who use shorter words and sentences come out on top.
3. Use your voice and own your message to build trust
To sound appropriately formal and authoritative, business writers often hide behind the passive voice and write in the third person. But to the reader, this can come across as unconfident or evasive.
To avoid this, break the cardinal rule of using “I” or “we” and use the first person, active voice. When you own your message (for example, saying “We missed our sales targets” rather than “Sales targets were missed”), you display accountability — which is crucial for getting others to give you the support and resources you need.
How do you make these new communication rules stick?
Unfortunately, knowing what you ought to do is rarely enough to make you change your behaviour. Even Winston Churchill fell short in his attempts to change his team’s bad communication habits. Eleven years after his “Brevity” memo, he must have felt a sense of déjà vu when he tapped out another directive.
“In 1940 I called for brevity. Evidently I must do so again. I ask my colleagues to read what I wrote then … and to make my wishes known to their staffs.”
He knew he sounded like a broken record. What he hadn’t realized, however, was that a memo does not translate spontaneously into a culture of good communication, where everyone does it automatically.
So, what does?
The key to getting an organization to communicate well is to make it difficult for everyone not to do it well. The companies that do this best don’t rely on memos, style guides, role modelling, training, or armies of copy editors. They use technology to show people when they’ve missed the mark and help them to find their way back to it.
It’s similar to the Japanese concept poka-yoke, or “mistake-proofing” — designing a product or process in a way that makes it really hard to screw up. The term was coined on Japan’s manufacturing floor in the 1960s, and applications of poka-yoke can today be found in most modern manufacturing processes as well as everyday life. Like automatic cars that won’t start if they’re not in “park” or “neutral”, so you don’t lurch forwards (or backwards). Or filing cabinets that won’t let you open more than one drawer at a time, to stop them falling over.
These days, modern software tools can be used in much the same way. Most of us are already using them to check our spelling and grammar, but you can take it further and use software to nudge your colleagues to adopt the communication principles that work, and to guide you back to the path when you stray off it.
That’s why we built Lucia, an AI-powered thinking and writing guide. Think of it as the love child of Microsoft Word’s scribbly red line, Grammarly, Socrates, and a newspaper editor. Or, as the Japanese might say, the poka-yoke of great communication.
It can give instant feedback and real-time prompts that challenge what your team members are writing, as they’re writing it, nudging them in the right direction and continuously training them. Are sentences short or long and rambling? Is the vocabulary simple or overly long and full of jargon? Lucia’s AI tools will ask these questions and suggest ways of fixing the problems it finds.
Before long, these new communication conventions feel less like “new rules” that everyone needs to learn and more like “good habits” that are hard to break. And communication becomes more like an organisational superpower and less like a hindrance — helping you channel your team’s collective brainpower and apply it to the problems and opportunities that matter most.
Want to build new communication habits today?
If you want to start forming new communication habits, take a look at Lucia, our AI-powered management reporting software. It offers live feedback, real-time prompts, smart automatic editing tools — and much more.