More is Not Better, but Less is More

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Near the end of each critical thinking course, students often ask for advice regarding the writing of business reports. What follows is a summary of that advice.

Start at the end
If you are in burning building and would like to warn others, should you discuss its construction and architecture? Perhaps – if it directly supports your point of exiting the building as soon as possible. However, your first sentence should note that the building is, in fact, on fire.

This does not mean that one should discard reasoning and context. Probably you will have to include the reasons briefly in your first paragraph, but restraint should be applied. Think of your first sentence as a silver bullet and you only have one. Aim it accurately and fire with confidence, and there is a surprisingly good chance that you will hit your target — getting the attention of your audience and keeping it long enough to tell them what they should think, feel, or do, and why. Meander, hesitate, and you will fire blindly and there is an excellent chance that you will hit your own foot, at best, your head at worst.

Let’s assume that you prefer the well-aimed silver bullet. If you do, then set aside preface and background. You will have plenty of time for that later — if you have succeeded in gaining your audience’s attention. If you have not, it doesn’t matter what you do, you have already lost them and should exit as gracefully as you can manage. As Kurt Vonnegut advised: “Start as close to the end as possible.”

Use complete sentences
Avoid making a report solely out of bullet points. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but bullet points are soulless scraps of information — difficult to read and harder to follow. Perhaps, this is the intellectual shadow cast by PowerPoint, or maybe we could blame it on Twitter. Regardless, bullet points are random, clipped signals, static on the shortwave radio. Spare your readers and write sentences that are complete and group those that are related into paragraphs. Be kind to your readers. Even if your have only one, be grateful for that one. That person is spending the currency of life – time — to listen to you.

Avoid the first-person singular
We know what you think because you’re telling the story, analyzing data, reaching conclusions. If it is not you, then you will let us know by citing the source, won’t you? If you state, “The company is losing analysts at an alarming rate.” We will assume it is what you think, so no need to tell us, “I think the company is losing analysts at an alarming rate.”

Focus on the objective
In any important communication think of what is the desired outcome. This is your immediate objective. Define it clearly and then determine what you must say to achieve it. Then, if what you must say is accurate, fair, and reasonable, state it. If it is not, then redefine your objective.

More is not better, but less is more
Simplicity is crucial to creating an effective argument. Occam’s Razor applies to the number of conditionals required for a particular outcome and so, of course, it applies to structuring an argument. The more points you have, the more complex your argument. The more complex your argument, the more difficult it is to understand and the more likely your audience and you will not know what you are talking about. More is not better, but less is more.

This originally appeared at GLOBIS.jp in a series on critical thinking.