Why I write
“Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and never repeat myself.”
Dalton Russell, Inside Man
Whenever the subject of communication arises, I am drawn to this particular quote from arguably the most underrated heist movie of the modern era. This single sentence provides a basis of why communication is important, and why writing is such a powerful tool. Why do I say this? Let’s take a closer look...
Clarity is king
All communication aims for clarity. Communication is a two-way street between the transmitter of a message who intends a certain meaning, and their recipient, who interprets that message through their own contextual lens. We’ve all been subjected at some point in our PME to a Chinese Whispers practical to prove how a simple message can be miscommunicated, but far more often it’s misperception that is the core of the issue. For example, when Air Force says it is employing talent management for promotion and posting decisions, it needs to be clear to the audience what it means by ‘talent’. No one looks at themselves in the mirror and says “I lack talent,” because they all believe they are talented. So in the absence of a definition, Air Force unintentionally sets an unrealistic expectation that everyone will now be personally managed for the specific attributes they perceive they bring to the organisation, rather than for those which Air Force values.
Not everyone can be as clear as Dalton Russell. Consider the many times you’ve stood in a semi-circle or sat in an auditorium to be briefed by ‘a leader’ (from an NCO to a star-rank – or perhaps it was you). Did this leader convey a clear and unambiguous message that everyone took away in exactly the manner they intended? Or were elements of it open to cherry-picking by the bush-lawyers in our midst? I find writing to be the best way to achieve clarity, regardless of whether my thoughts will be eventually expressed in verbal or written form. I can choose my words carefully to convey my intended meaning precisely and unambiguously. I can do so without the pressure of an audience in front of me. I have the opportunity to consider what I am saying from my audience’s perspective, to hear my words in their head and reflect upon how they may respond. Have I articulated my points clearly and supported them logically without labouring the point? Are they likely to interpret my words the way I intend? Or do I need to reconsider my approach and the level of detail I am providing?
We are already inundated with ‘information’, the sheer volume of which distracts and detracts in terms of both attention and understanding. “In 2000, the average attention span of an internet user was measured at twelve seconds. By 2015, it had shrunk to eight seconds.” Given that, (and ignoring that by this rationale you stopped reading by the end of the opening paragraph) your communications need to be succinct. This imperative is reinforced by the value people in modern society place upon their time and the sense of annoyance created when they perceive that you have wasted this commodity. During our aforementioned briefing, did our leader get to the point within the audience’s attention span? Or did they choose their words poorly and have to repeat themselves to get their message across? If so, did they simply rephrase each repetition slightly such that your attention wandered and you were left unclear on the specifics as a result of the subtle shifts? Worse still, was the time allotted for the brief more than was needed had it been more concise and, like the 1000-word essay squeezed into 5000, their presentation ballooned to fill the space available?
Again, writing is helpful to achieve the succinct outcome Dalton Russell would appreciate. The quote, “This letter would have been shorter had I had more time,” has been attributed to many sources, but that does not make it any less true. Once you have achieved clarity, you should next ensure that your thoughts are sufficiently concise to avoid wasting other people’s time and your own. A benefit of economy of words is that all of them matter. This lack of ‘filler’ increases the likelihood that your audience’s attention will not be lost before you get your point across.
Alternative viewpoints can’t be ignored
No matter how well-crafted your argument, there will always be a question or a contrary point of view. Perhaps you’ve built your case as a stalking horse or straw man specifically to generate discussion on a contentious topic; one of the many conversations that we, as military professionals, need to have rather than default to multipartite collegiality. In our briefing from Leader Wrong, how did they deal with questions and alternative points of view? Did they respond in a considered and thoughtful manner that showed they understood the subject matter well and lent authority and credibility to what they said? Did they take the question on notice with the generic, ‘Good question, I’ll get back to you on that,’ (and did they)? Did they MSU on the spot in the assumption that, as the smartest person in the room they could get away with it? Or was there no time for questions or challenges because they digressed and waffled and repeated themselves endlessly suggesting they didn’t really get the issue themselves or hadn’t prepared appropriately? Or, from a more cynical perspective, was this an intentional effort to minimise the opportunity for audience response or challenges to their point of view.
We claim that the Air Force appreciates diversity of thought. If that is true, we should be seeking out counter arguments either to confirm we are on the right path or to ensure we don’t miss opportunities to make appropriate course corrections. Some organisations actively engage an audience through the Socratic method to inform, or to stimulate a competition of ideas in order to generate arrive at an optimal option.
Writing is a useful method through which to consider the pros and cons of competing points of view. As you lay out your key arguments, you should also consider what questions they may generate or what contrary viewpoints may arise. If you are briefing your workforce on organisational policy, this will help you be better prepared for likely questions and have answers at the ready, both increasing your credibility, but more importantly also a sign of respect for your thinking audience. If you encouraging a competition of ideas, you need to have a handle on several viewpoints to be ready to facilitate the debate. If you are expressing a specific view, it is always useful to outline the likely challenges to that view and why they are not sufficiently compelling to sway you, lest you be accused of being wedded to a single idea.
Written word as fact
Notwithstanding the post-truth world in which we now reside, the written word remains a crucial reference point when needed. We have all had staff who have selectively quoted a document, presentation or speech that supports their argument (or perhaps have done so ourselves). Doveryai, no proveryai, the Russian proverb meaning trust but verify, is a central element of leadership. Confirming facts through reference to the written word is far simpler and more authoritative than from a recollection of something that was said, or, as is more often the case, what was inferred from what was perceived to have been said. Irrespective of whether you choose to express yourself entirely in written form or to speak from notes comprising your carefully chosen words, if what you are saying is important enough to communicate, it is important enough to create a lasting reference of the words used. While you may not avoid entirely a debate over what was meant and what was inferred, you now have a better starting point in the future than vague recollections, misquotes, or misrepresentations proffered as immutable fact.
There are many reasons to express your thoughts. You may wish to convey knowledge or the wisdom of your experience to others. You may need to present a compelling business case to the Government seeking approval for a billion-dollar project. You may want to inform your workforce of an organisational policy decision that affects them or you may want to explain to the organisation why you think that policy shift is ill-informed or has a high risk of failure.
There are also many means by which you can express those thoughts. Some have the face for radio and matching wit – for them a podcast such as The Dead Prussian or War for Idiots may be the go. Some have the gift of sarcasm and satire – their message may be best conveyed through the Duffel Blog, Doctrine Man or the (lately silent) Raspberry Creek Bugler. Any approach has inherent risk. In the case of the former, the dialogue may seem forced and unnatural, in which case your listener’s attention and therefore your message may be lost. In the latter instance, you may encounter the sarchasm across which your wit cannot reach, leaving the audience that takes you literally confused or, worse, offended.
If your aim is to engage with your audience and communicate your message effectively, you could do worse than aspire to Dalton Russell (minus the armed robbery). Writing is a useful tool to aid you in this effort, but like all skills worth having, it takes practice. The good news is that, from The Central Blue to the Strategy Bridge, there are many forums available through which to hone those skills. So, to poach a line from a favoured podcast, grab a pen and crack on!
Group Captain Jason Begley is a Royal Australian Air Force officer currently undertaking a National Security Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and Australian Command and Staff College, and holds Masters degrees from UNSW and the ANU. He is mid-way through a research PhD co-sponsored by the Air Force and the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, but is thinking of switching topics (again). Views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.
 Singer, P.W. and Brooking, E.T., LikeWar – The Weaponization of Social Media, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2018, p 158.
 ‘If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter’, Quote Investigator, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/28/shorter-letter/ accessed 02 Sep 19.