One page documents are the gold standard of business communications. Recently, I had an epiphany while listening to a podcast about the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta, The U.S. Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, the Rosetta Stone (not Rosetta stones) even the cardboard signs used by street hustlers, are all one page documents. (I believe the Ten Commandments was a two-pager but, considering the heft of the stone tables, this was likely a necessity for portability; e-readers had not been invented yet.)
For pleasure reading, I am a fan of the long, complex, often wandering novels of John Irving, Wilkie Collins, and Robertson Davies, etc. However, for business communications I’ve found brevity to be the key to success. Less is more.
Recently I received an urgent email asking me to “update the attached information paper”. I didn’t know who wrote the paper, or why, or for whom it was intended. According to the date on the paper it was over three years old and the requester wanted it updated immediately!
How does a three-year old information paper written by someone else, for an unknown reader, suddenly become my priority? My first impulse was to employ the “slow roll” technique found on page 27 of the Asymmetrical Bureaucratic Warfare (ABW) manual. A passive-aggressive maneuver used in cases like this with the hope the crushing urgency will be attenuated by a sloth-like response. (Theoretically this attenuation can cause the urgency of the request to approach zero.) I am not proud to admit it does work about 35% of the time. Life in the trenches of a bureaucratic staff organization must be experienced to be understood.
The information paper was terrible. It was woefully out-of-date, inaccurate, a terrible document not worth reading. Also the author was apparently satisfied at exactly 1.1 pages, that’s right, not one page but 1.1. pages with only the “written by” and “approved by” information on the second page. (A good information paper is one page.) I cringed, these words were orphaned like a character in a Charles Dickens' novel. How much more effort would it take to fit everything on one page?
A friend of mine always says you never regret taking the high road. With this advice in mind, I decided not employ the “slow roll” technique. Instead I called the requestor to discuss my new priority which had just jumped into my project queue like a inconsiderate Tilt-A-Whirl line-jumper at the Minnesota State Fair. The voice on the other end of the telephone was edgy, nervous, and under tremendous pressure to produce an updated document, immediately. I agreed to help.
There are several reasons for my decision but the most salient was the fact the topic of the paper was my program. So, rather then letting him flounder around helplessly like a tortoise rolled onto its back, I decided to use this as an opportunity to present my program the way I wanted to present it.
I hijacked the document, re-wrote it, and returned it to him five minutes before his deadline. The timing of my completion was due to other priorities and the amount of work required to correct the paper and was not a willful attempt at stressing him out. However, the unintended effects were, no doubt, a bolus of stress for him and his inability to request further editing prior to his deadline. Oh, and I did return the document to him as an Adobe Acrobat portable document file (PDF) make future editing more cumbersome for him. This is one of the most commonly-used ABW techniques.
The high road was indeed a pleasant one. Besides, can you imagine Rosetta stones or the beautiful signatures on the Declaration of Independence orphaned onto a separate page, or worse, on the back of the document?