Metropolitan police officers have been given a guide on how to “speak plainly” in emails and not to “prattle on with lots of buzzwords”, according to recent newspaper reports.
But not everyone is pleased. The Mirror quotes one source as saying, “Who knows what’s next? Perhaps a guide to tying shoelaces.”
However, as we pointed out in a previous blog post, this is a profession fond of verbosity, such as, “I was proceeding in an orderly fashion…” instead of “I drove…”, so some tips are probably still needed.
The guidance tells officers to “Start your email with a summary sentence that provides a quick view of why it was sent, for example, “This email explains a new initiative and how you can take part’.”
(At the risk of being churlish, that advice could be less wordy, but let’s not go there…)
News reporters will know this “summary” tip as the “inverted pyramid news” and it’s a technique that anyone who seeks to communicate effectively should employ, whether they’re pitching for business, doing a media interview, appearing on Dragons’ Den or telling colleagues what happened at a meeting.
How does it work? You put the most important information – who, what, when, where, why and how – at the start. This is to answer what would be your audience’s key questions. What then follows should be in diminishing order of importance.
This will seem counterintuitive to those who still like to communicate as they did when they wrote stories at school or those who report scientific studies – the ones who set out their “stall”, describe what happened next and build up to an occasionally amazing conclusion.
Alas, many fans of PowerPoint presentations adopt this approach too and then wonder why the audience has been reduced to a torporific state thanks to a hail of bullet points.
Far from being a creative straitjacket, the inverted pyramid is a great way for anyone – from police officers to engineers, doctors and lawyers – to focus minds on what is truly important and is the perfect filter for waffle and drivel.
Taking this self-imposed discipline even further, the email subject line demands the ultimate summary. Like a good tabloid headline, if you read an email’s subject line and still have no idea what will be in the body of the email, it has probably failed. (I received one last week that read, “It’s easy to be cheap, it’s better to be better”. I’m still not sure whether I should feel insulted or delighted.)
Who has time to be “teased” into an email? The same goes for a news story. And a media interview. And a business pitch.
For reporters, the inverted pyramid is also essential for those moments when the news editor decides there is now only room for 100 words of his/her 200-word story. With a deadline looming, there is no time to re-write it; but thanks to the inverted pyramid, the report can be safely sliced in half, with the “cream” of the story still right at the top of the now pint-sized piece. (This requirement is a throwback to the days of “hot metal”, but is still good practice.)
If you remain unconvinced about the value of the upturned triangle though, grab a tabloid, read the first ten headlines and their intros. You should have the gist of all those stories. The “whodunnit/whosaidit/whowonit/wherewasit/whenwasit” should not be lurking in the final line, overlooked by that somewhat endangered species, the media “sniffer dog” or newshound grammarian – the sub-editor.
If those key facts are buried at the bottom of the story, pass sentence on the sentence and buy a different newspaper.