When you communicate, be concise!

 Back in the days when I was a postgraduate student of Operational Research, one of the compulsory modules was about communication.  It was argued that people who do O.R. need to communicate their results with other people with clarity; that means explaining the results of O.R. studies to non-specialists.

Then, when I taught O.R. to undergraduates, we agreed to introduce a short "CommSkills" programme for the specialists in statistics and O.R..  There were lectures/presentations about written reports, interviewing techniques, making presentations (before Powerpoint, so it was with an overhead projector).  For practice small teams had to interview a staff member who was playing a role of a manager with a problem, come up with a solution, and make a presentation to their peers and the staff. I invented a queueing problem associated with a fictitious supermarket filling station --- how many pumps should there be?  Other colleagues were inventive with their "management" problems.  

(We had a slight tussle with university red tape; this programme could have no credits in the scheme of things, and therefore could not be made compulsory for the students.  We dealt with that with a very small stick and a bigger carrots.  The stick was: "If you don't take part, we will mention it when we write a job reference."  The carrots were a reward for the best final presentation, and the glowing reports from the previous cohort of students who had done the programme.  And after a few years, we had reports from our graduates that it was the most useful part of their course, and that graduates from other universities were envious of the skills that had been in our programme!)

Which brings this blog to lessons on conciseness.  Our programme emphasised that our students might be working with and for decision-makers who needed a clear, brief report.  We could point to words of Sir Winston Churchill, UK prime minister: "Report to me on one side of a sheet of paper ..."; the industrialist Sir John Harvey-Jones "I will not read a report that is longer than one side of A4"

So I loved this story: 

When most car companies come to replace a long-running and well-loved model they will create a lengthy and detailed brief setting out in many thousands of words what is required from the new model.  When in 1985, Lamborghini finally realised that it needed a new flagship  the brief from company president was as follows: 

"Create a Countach successor"

His engineers did as they were told, and all for a budget of just ten million pounds which included re-tooling the production line and extending the factory. Bargain.  (from "Boring Car Trivia volume 2)

And in my talk on the course, I produced some examples of poor communication in print.  What do you understand by a headline "Councillors probe flat flood"?  And I had a business graphic which had been produced for an internal readership and lifted without explanation into another document, intended for the shareholders of the company: lovely colour graphics, but what did they mean?


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