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  • Writer's pictureBrett Crombie

A lesson in brevity from Sir Winston Churchill

A recent book I read covered the appalling period in late 1940 when Hitler’s forces heavily bombed England in preparation for a land invasion. That Hitler’s invasion, codenamed Operation Sealion, never eventuated was thanks to at least two key factors; the remarkably aggressive airborne retaliation from the Royal Air Force, and the sheer stubbornness and determination of the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

The book, called The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson, is a gripping narrative of Churchill’s actions throughout this darkest period, when Britain was subject to daily bombings and the imminent threat of invasion.

While of course the sphere of deadly warfare differs in many ways from the sphere of business, as an accountant I tend to read most things with a thought to business lessons as well. One such lesson from this book is to do with brevity.

To say that Churchill’s schedule during this period was hectic is an understatement. He rarely slept and was moving constantly between locations, dictating letters, reading reports and discussing weighty matters with his staff. Perhaps no surprise then, that Churchill was a stickler for brevity and conciseness.

Such was the importance he placed on brevity that amidst of the chaos of war, Churchill took the time to write to his War Cabinet about the topic. Reports should, he said “set out the main points in a series of short, crisp paragraphs.” He requested short expressive phrases, even if they seemed conversational, then he gave several examples of what he termed “officialese jargon” which should be avoided.

Perhaps Churchill’s most insightful comment on the topic was that “the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clear thinking.” Here Churchill is observing that concise writing is as much an aid to the writer as to the reader.

For business owners, this can be a secret weapon. Whenever you are faced with a business problem, setting it out in writing is likely to focus your attention on the matter and lead to clear, disciplined decisions. Once written, it can probably then be shortened even further to a key problem and solution statement. This can be used for all manner of business decisions; whether to replace a work vehicle; whether to hire an extra staff member or how to get through a cash squeeze.

While thankfully in business we are dealing with far less deadly decisions than Churchill was during those terrifying days in 1940, the clarity of thought that comes from setting out problems concisely is likely to be equally relevant to your business today.


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