Saturday, 8 March 2008

One Page Memos

When he was Prime Minister of England during the Second World War, Churchill was famous for demanding that all memos be only one page long. I always understood the need for clear writing and brevity. I just never appreciated how difficult one pagers are to write.

Earlier this year I started a night course on dramatic writing. (No jokes about being a creative accountant, OK? This is serious.) The instructor, Greg Nelson (of Afghanada fame), asked us to submit a one page outline of our plays. Mine turned out to be two pages, in my usual point form. He gave it back to me and said, no it had to be one page long and in full sentences.

That's when the real writing began. How do you condense two hours of presentation down to one page? This process forces you to be ruthless about cutting away the unimportant material and getting to the point quickly. Then, when the instructor handed it back he commented on a couple of key points that I had missed. Geez! Now I had to cut even further to find room. But that's the whole idea. If you are going to ask people to spend two hours of their life with you, you'd better be spinning a lot of gold, not just the usual cotton.

The accounting systems business is full of RFI's (Requests for Information) and RFP's (Requests for Proposals). These documents often run 100 pages or more. They are typically 85% boilerplate and 15% fill-in-the-blank. Try this: when you are requesting suppliers to submit proposals, tell them you need a one page document detailing why you should go with them. If you like the one pager, you'll read the entire proposal. Then, when you get it, if there is any hint of boilerplate or jargon (e.g. "enterprise focused solution" instead of "software"), send it back saying it's not detailed enough and doesn't address your needs adequately. Offer to set up an appointment with your assistant if the supplier wants more information about your needs. Most of them won't take you seriously, but the ones who do really want your business and are willing to listen to you. In a world where there are all kinds of software packages that will do the job, isn't finding someone who will listen to you what the whole selection process is really about?