Recently, U.S. Army Strategist Matt Cavanaugh published his thoughts on why army officers don’t write. In his thesis, Matt develops three monikers to describe such officers, using characters from the Wizard of Oz to describe them; namely the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. Bluntly, Matt’s description is cute but ineffective and his assertion that official publications are the only way military officers can communicate thoughts and ideas is inaccurate.
Cavanaugh is correct in his description of how writing enables the flow of ideas. Indeed, at some point in college, we all looked questioningly at the students who majored in communications – it tended to seem a degree made for collegiate football players to pass something in order to play. However, at some point in a professional career, one would hope we also came to an understanding that communication is one of life’s most important skills. For the military – especially those on staff at higher-level headquarters – a key aspect of success comes in the form of communication through the written word. The following compilation of written forms of communication is, in our estimation, essential to the military staff officer to communicate ideas and concepts to those who include change at the highest levels.
1. The Blackberry (or other mobile device). Government officials still use the Blackberry as official hardware for communications. Leaders from company command to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff often receive a Blackberry as part of their official kit. Indeed, nothing screams “I am in the military” than a Blackberry clipped to a belt. To reach these individuals, one must be short and concise – no longer than what can immediately be seen when opening the email on that small screen. If you can communicate the message so that a receiver understands the point without scrolling through the message, you are successful. Think of the BlackBerry as the twitter of military communications, 140 characters or less, but without the hashtag.
2. The email. This medium is similar to Blackberry communications, only there is slightly space for prose. The art of communicating via email to a military leader is to get to the point up front, develop key points as evidence to support that point, and still make it short and concise enough to prevent scrolling. Most leadership messaging these days occurs on mobile devices so don’t count on having the extra room for the prose – if you want someone to read your email, write it for the Blackberry. Any additional information can be provided when requested.
3. The PowerPoint presentation. Believe it or not, PowerPoint is as much a writing skill as any other in today’s military. Officers using PowerPoint balance short and succinct bullet points with full paragraphs when the situation demands it. Moreover, senior leaders tend to frown upon lengthy presentations when their time is valuable and limited. Choosing the right phrases in the right order is a skill that develops over the course of a career. Moreover, matching the prose to carefully chosen graphic or picture is an acquired talent. If you can transfer the concept of the Blackberry note to a slide, chances are you’ll have hit the target; one slide is the hole in one of briefing. Leave the details for the “voice over” in the meeting.
4. The Information Paper. The foundation of success for any staff officer is the ability to take a 600-page document, or your idea that may become that 600-page document, and narrow it down to the essential parts in two pages. This is the essence of an information paper. Information papers can enhance the power of an obscure staff officer, as it often serves as a tool to route analysis up through the chain of command. It also can serve as the tool to lobby for a new concept, strategy, or plan. This is usually either a step toward a longer document, or a step toward “selling” the 600-page strategy.
5. The Strategy. Developing and writing a well-developed strategy, campaign plan, or contingency plan is time consuming. Moreover, this aspect of military writing is often an officer’s introduction to writing teams. A 600-page contingency war plan or theater campaign plan is developed by a team of writers from across a staff. The same holds true for institutional strategies. In this aspect, officers do not only serve as writers, but as editors to other people’s products. Writing in the military is a team sport. Unlike the previous forms, these are not sent over email or to a Blackberry; senior leaders will not read them. These are written for the institutions that take part in their crafting. Write them so your fellow staff officers can employ them in some sort of action. And be ready to turn the strategy into an order or condense the 600-page document into a Blackberry message, an email, or a slide…
6. The Order. Sooner or later, strategies and plans must be translated into executable orders. In fact, the order is how military organizations or units communicate (as opposed to communication between individuals). There are multiple types of orders to include the Warning Order, the Operations Order, and the Execute Order, to name just a few. Orders should be concise and accurate, distilling the strategy or campaign plan into actions to be done and metrics to be assessed. Every word conveys a specific meaning. The difference between the words secure, hold, clear, and destroy tell a commander exactly what to do. Those written orders must have a solid foundation in doctrine, and an uncanny ability to put a commander’s thoughts onto paper. Indeed, the writing of an order is both an art and a science. Also be prepared to condense this long document into a Blackberry message, an email, or a slide…
7. The Speech. While most people in and out of uniform think every speechwriter was either an English major or brilliant speakers themselves, in fact almost anyone can perform the function. Speech writing can range from an additional duty for a battalion or brigade staff officer, to an actual coded position on a 3 or 4-star joint staff. Speeches are essentially white papers in verbal form – they are either to develop a drumbeat for action, or to “sell” something already completed. Aside from making the words easily digested and read aloud, speeches are little different than all the other forms of communication. Techniques such as litany, repetition, antithesis, and the telling of a personal anecdote, while not appropriate for an information paper or operations order, can enhance the effectiveness of a speech. Also, like Blackberry messages, emails, and PowerPoint slides, the more concise you are, the better.
Communicating through writing forces the writer to think, and to make intellectual decisions. While professional journals, blogs, and other forms of publication are certainly worthy of time and effort, the daily writing done by officers can be just as, if not more, influential on policy level decision makers.
Photo source: US Army
Great exhortation for Soldiers of every rank; see the recent initiative for NCOs:
I feel smarter and empowered every time I read something Nate has produced. My deepest respect and appreciation to Dan and Nate for taking the simple yet widely misunderstood and creating a rich reduction that is both savory and fulfilling. Thanks gents!