Something interesting happened at work the other week...

Posted on Sat 16 July 2022 in blog • 4 min read

I am sure that many of you have been summoned to your fair share of quarterly, end-of-half-year, or end-of-year updates which were held by way of a company meeting. You probably didn’t like them too much, maybe even dreaded the thought of 45 minutes (or longer! 😱) of Death By PowerPoint. But perhaps you didn’t mind turning up because hey, at least it was free coffee and donuts.

When the pandemic rolled around, many organizations turned that quarterly all-hands summons into a quarterly all-hands virtual summons, in the shape of a video call. Now you had to supply your own self-funded donuts, and probably didn’t like the idea of staring into a camera for 45 minutes straight (or longer! 😖🔨). Worse still, I hear that some of you might be have been subjected to virtual pre-recorded events, where you could watch an executive pontificate from a script, with no interactivity whatsoever. Something, I imagine, that is approximately as engaging as watching a wannabe investment advisor on a YouTube channel with 6 subscribers, 4 of them relatives.

Last week, our CEO Jim (who, to his credit, previously ran these events in a reasonably engaging fashion) did something different. At the end of our second quarter, and a few days before going on annual leave, he sat down and wrote an email. As in, he actually sat down and wrote an email. It had structure, it had a format, it had clear messaging, it was to the point.

What was in the message?

I’m obviously not going to go into the detailed content of the email, but here’s what stood out:

  • The message started with an intro that clearly settled the reader’s expectations: this is what I’m writing about; this is what you’ll be reading.

  • It clearly delineated that some of the items discussed were going to be somewhat negative (as in, worthy of improvement); many others were positive. It also clearly established that the negatives were coming first, and the positives thereafter.1

  • It used paragraphs, which were clearly separated by topic. As you read, you knew exactly where one thought concluded and the next one started.

  • It conveyed an obviously personal viewpoint: Jim was giving his own perspective on things, rather than writing like a detached omniscient narrator.

  • It was very evident that Jim hadn’t just bashed out the message and sent it off in a hurry, but that some careful re-reading and editing went into it. I have no idea if he did this by himself or asked someone else to go over it with him, but that does not matter: what matters is that he edited, not whether he was his own editor.2

What else is good about this?

Best of all, the whole thing was a remarkable exercise in efficiency. Jim put his thoughts into precisely 1,500 words.3 As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, information you can express in 1,500 concisely written words is at the top end of what you can convey in a 60-minute verbal meeting — but when put in writing, it takes a fluent English speaker only about 6 minutes to read.

How does this compare to the conventional meeting-based approach?

  • Had Jim prepared slides and a speech for an all-hands meeting, it would have taken him at least two hours, plus the hour of conducting the meeting. He probably spent the same total of three hours writing out, rereading, and editing his message. So the total effort he had to spend on his email was about the same he would have needed to spend on the preparation and the conduct of a meeting.

  • For everyone else, that is the other 98% of the company, reading the email took one-tenth of the time that participating in a meeting conveying the same information would have taken. Jim gave back 90% of the productivity that would have been spent in a meeting, to 98% of the company.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Yes it eminently does. So, next time you consider summoning your whole company to an all-hands meeting or video call, try to be a little more like Jim.

  1. This is an excellent move on two counts: first, readers naturally perceive what comes last as being emphasised. By getting the negatives out of the way first, the positives stick in people’s minds more strongly. Second, it establishes that once you get to the positives, there is no further downer coming to sucker-punch you. 

  2. A trusted editor is a gift from god (if you believe in such things). I can highly recommend asking someone you enjoy working with to lend you an extra pair of eyes to go over what you write. I was mutual editors with Elena Lindqvist for two years; it was glorious. 

  3. I am told this exact round-number precision was coincidence.