Clarity versus brevity - or: why brevity is over-rated

Many bosses insist on one-page summaries to spare themselves from bulky reports. "S.O.A.P.", they declare. (Summary On A Page... what a horrible acronym - but stay tuned, there's the much worse one later). It's flawed thinking though. Yes, bosses get shorter notes, but the notes are still dreadful. For good reason too - if someone can’t write a decent ten-pager, they won’t write a decent one-pager.

Writing isn’t a test of endurance: it's not like, say, jogging (“can’t do five miles? Just do one instead”). It’s more akin to singing – I have an awful singing voice, so it matters not if I belt out one song or five: I sound dreadful. Also, it’s tough to write short notes. As the saying goes: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to write a short one”. 

When bosses ask for brevity, they confuse cause and effect. Brevity doesn’t produce clarity. Rather, clarity produces brevity. Ask for clarity and we often also get brevity. It’s a by-product of clarity.

But whilst it’s easy to gauge brevity (three pages is shorter than six), it’s tougher to gauge clarity. So don't think of reading time; think of understanding time. Imagine we have a confusing two-pager on topic ABC and a clear four-pager on XYZ. We read the two-pager more quickly than the four-pager, but we then must read the tough two-pager again. And again.

Then we ask its author to pop to our desk to talk through it. On understanding time, the clear four-pager wins by a mile. Don’t judge reports on brevity or reading time. Judge them on clarity or understanding time.

Til next month. 


P.S. "Sorry this is such a long letter": many years ago, a colleague googled to find whose quote this is... and he emerged triumphant: "So far, I've found 25 people to whom it's attributed - Wilde, Dostoevsky, Pascal, Twain.. the list goes on". 

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