April 25, 2022

Brevity: The Call for Clearer Thinking

On August 9, 1940, Winston Churchill sent a memo to his War Cabinet called “Brevity,” on how to write an official report. That he would offer writing advice at such a point is remarkable. He was three months into his prime ministership, the blitzkrieg had just overwhelmed the Allied armies in France, and the Luftwaffe was now turning its attention to Britain’s own cities and citizens. And here he was, chiding away against the use of “woolly phrases” and “officialese jargon.” What possible difference would a few extra words make in helping the nation defend its very existence?

But Churchill was after much more than concise diction. He was after “clearer thinking.” And it’s hard to imagine a time that demanded more of it. Written reports were central to the Cabinet’s inner communication. It kept the members informed and formed the basis for their decisions and actions. Reports that could be readily understood helped optimize the team’s ability to prosecute the war, at a time when every decision and action mattered. It was akin to maximizing the productivity of the aircraft production lines at a time when every Spitfire in the air mattered.

Churchill did not mean for reports to sacrifice complexity for the sake of being short. An author’s options were not limited to the page. Deeper analysis could be appended. Thornier problems could be discussed. If readers needed a better understanding, then the author provided a means to get it. This was far better than forcing each team member to wind through a maze of analysis in search of clues about the important points. It was the author’s responsibility to write in a way that would benefit the readers — who, after all, were colleagues engaged in a common purpose. A report should provide lift, not weight, to the team.

Some might find a call for brevity a bit rich coming from Churchill, who was notoriously long-winded. On December 7, 1940, for example, he wrote President Roosevelt imploring for U.S. aid in the war effort. His letter — which could have comprised one word: HELP! — was 15 pages, dense with facts about merchant shipping and other issues. (Churchill’s account of the war spans six volumes and well over 4,000 pages.) But here again, context is important. Churchill was not just asking for help; he was arguing for it, and he was equipping Roosevelt on how to convince an isolationist-leaning nation that lending a hand was in its own best interest. By contrast, the reports internal to his Cabinet played a different role. They were the grist for executing its strategic goals — like garnering U.S. aid, which if effective, could change the outcome of the war.

Most litigators will claim they already well know how to write an effective memo. Yet amazingly, many of us still fail to heed Churchill’s advice. The modern version of this, enabled by email, comes from both directions. From one comes the spit-ballers, who offer a rambling, foggy view of the source material, satisfied with volume as the tell-tale that an answer must be in there somewhere. From the other comes the forwarders, who proudly declare their own command of the source material with the dreaded message: “See attached.” Both may think they are being helpful. But they are only offloading their own laziness or I’m-too-busy-ness onto others, burdening the team with more work and muddy thinking.

What makes for a good report is, to some extent, up to the beholder, but in my eye it is this:

It illustrates. Lawyers are storytellers. They should look for ways to integrate narratives into even mundane topics — not just to make the writing engaging, but to make it effective. Consider this: “In Palsgraf, the court held that the defendant was not liable for unforeseeable harm.” That is both correct and concise. But it is not that helpful. Now consider: “In Palsgraf, a railroad employee was helping a passenger board a train when the passenger dropped a package, which then exploded, causing a nearby scale to hit and injure the plaintiff. The court held that the railroad was not liable because….” That’s a mouthful, but that’s the point. The reader can now visualize the case, and seeing the convolution of facts, understand why the court ruled the way it did. Even more, that brief story becomes a mnemonic for the case itself. It draws a picture that is hard to forget.

It explores. Lawyers are problem-solvers. After exploring the inner rooms of the source material, authors need to step outside, venture up a nearby hill, scan back over the landscape and ask themselves, so what does it all mean? And while analysis must be candid and dispassionate, it need not be neutral. Your client has a position, your team has a strategy, and you have a point of view. How does the research affect your case? How can it best be adopted or avoided? A skillful summary is useful, but a thoughtful analysis is valuable. And if solutions prove elusive, then the author should describe the problem and propose a plan — a live meeting, or more research, or a change of course — to deal with it.

It endures. A good report does not just offer answers. It becomes a resource, one that the team can consult for correspondence, argument, or negotiation. It doesn’t need to look perfect. But it does need to be written leanly, in crisp sentences and short paragraphs. It should quote any salient rules, laws, or evidence. Ideally it should print onto a single page, front and back. And it should attach key source material, highlighted for easy review. Such reports will not be forgotten. They will be used again and again as the case evolves and issues crystallize.

I focus on litigation, but this guidance can be adapted to any team that relies on written communication to advance its objectives — namely, most teams in business or law. And again, the point here is not to write one good report, any more than it matters to build one good plane. It is to create and foster a culture of such writing within the team, to construct an efficient, well-oiled, and dependable production line of good reporting, one that fuels collective understanding and empowers nimble decisions and autonomous action.

Just for a moment, put yourself in Churchill’s slippers at No. 10 Downing Street in August 1940 — an office you earned because you refused to concede — and ask yourself, what would you expect of the reports landing on your desk if the enemy’s planes were headed towards your cities? Far from remarkable, a call for clearer thinking might just seem essential.

Notes:

  • Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile (2020) provides a vivid account of Churchill’s first year as prime minister. This was my initial source for Churchill’s memo and letter.
  • The standard guide for good writing remains, in my opinion, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th ed., 1999). There are certainly others.
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