Hi there, it’s me, Matt.
Today’s essay is a break from Ethics for Designers — we’ll be back next week with part V, a look at a modern branch of ethics called Care Ethics.
I had a moment of synchronicity: I read about Winston Churchill’s reform of his own bureaucracy’s communication, then read the coverage of the USS Roosevelt’s response to COVID-19. Most of us will never be in command of an aircraft carrier, but there’s a lot we can learn from Captain Crozier’s communication style. I wrote this essay to distill some of that wisdom.
But first, a song recommendation.
Elizabeth is a band. Elizabeth is also the lead singer of the band. Here’s the elevator pitch, from Elizabeth (them/her)(selves/self): “Elizabeth is a glamorous tragic, a queer pop anti-heroine holding a curtain of glittering melodies over ugly truths.” I really like the sad pop sounds of meander.
And now on to the essay. (You can also read this on my website if you prefer)
On April 2nd, 2020, Brett Crozier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer, was relieved of command. The Navy’s decision to remove Crozier stemmed from a message that the commander wrote to his superiors. The message concerned a developing emergency aboard the Roosevelt: 114 crew members had tested positive for COVID-19 among a total crew of 4,000. Without action, many more sailors would get sick.
The issue at hand wasn’t that Crozier sounded the alarm bell. It was how he did it: using an unclassified message that was quickly leaked to the press.
This essay isn’t about whether or not Crozier should have been dismissed. I’m sharing the story because while reading Crozier’s message, I came across a curious phrase: Bottom Line Up Front, or BLUF. Captain Crozier used BLUF at the beginning of his request to his superiors:
BLUF: If required the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT would embark all assigned Sailors, set sail, and be ready to fight and beat any adversary that dares challenge the US or our allies. The virus would certainly have an impact, but in combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime. However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily. Decisive action is required now in order to comply with CDC and NAVADMIN 083/20 guidance and prevent tragic outcomes.
Three and a half pages of supporting arguments follow, but true to its name, BLUF puts Crozier’s conclusions first.1
This style of communication is bold. It doesn’t hedge. It’s not a summary; it states the document’s purpose in simple, unambiguous language. In a sense, it’s the opposite of most business communications.
Can businesses use BLUF? What would it take to put clarity over completeness? Does it leave room for vulnerability and candor?
Bottom Line Up Front: I think BLUF can and should be used in business communication like presentations, emails, memos, and documentation.
The phrase “bottom line up front” appears in a 100-page-long document with the dizzying title Army Regulation 25–50: Information Management: Records Management: Preparing and Managing Correspondence. It’s in Chapter 1: Preparing Correspondence, section IV: Effective Writing and Correspondence: The Army Writing Style, sub-section 36: Standards for Army writing, paragraph b. No, I am not making that up.
Army writing will be concise, organized, and to the point. Two essential requirements include putting the main point at the beginning of the correspondence (bottom line up front) and using the active voice (for example, “You are entitled to jump pay for the time you spent in training last year”).2
It also shows up in Air Force Handbook 33-337 (called, cryptically, The Tongue and Quill) for speakers, writers, and presenters:
Organizing: get your bottom line up front (most of the time). In nearly every communication situation, you need to state your bottom line early in the message. In a direct or deductive approach, state your position, main point or purpose up front, then go into the details that support your main point. When you take a direct approach to communication, your audience is better prepared to digest the details of the message and logically make the connections in its own mind.3
A cursory search didn’t turn up any instance of BLUF in the US Navy’s regulations or documentation, but it seems that at some point there was a regular Navy newsletter called Bottom Line: Up Front.
While the US Military may have a claim on the phrase BLUF, they’re hardly the first organization to see the benefit of brevity in communication.
In 1940, Winston Churchill took a personal stake in the way the British War Cabinet communicated. He wrote a memo, titled “BREVITY,” which made the case for more efficient writing:
To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points … [the result] may at first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving of time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clear thinking.4
The bottom line is not a summary.
The purpose of a summary is to stand in for the whole document, to make it easy for a reader to glean important information. At the beginning of a document, a summary saves a reader time. Journalists often use this approach in news stories, writing in what they call inverted pyramid style. News stories written in inverted pyramid style begin with a paragraph that answers the five w’s: who, what, where, when, and why. The rest of the story builds context and reinforces these points, but laying the full narrative out in a few short sentences helps readers get the most information in the least amount of time.
Here’s an example from The New York Times:
The harsh economic toll of the social distancing measures put in place to curb the spread of the pandemic was underscored Thursday when the Labor Department reported that another 6.6 million people had filed for unemployment benefits last week.
In Captain Crozier’s memo, the bottom line is “Decisive action is required now.” This sentence doesn’t include the five w’s: there’s no mention of the epidemiological facts, the status of the Roosevelt’s crew, or historical examples of breaking Navy operating procedures.
The purpose of the bottom line is to capture the decisive moment of your argument, the sentence or two that most directly reflects your point of view. At the beginning of a document, the bottom line saves time by enabling the reader to respond immediately.
A decade ago, I was starting a business for the first time, a local music magazine called Eleven. My co-founders and I had grand ambitions but zero experience, especially in selling advertising — a crucial function to surviving past the first issue.
We pitched our magazine to every local business in a 20-mile radius. I passionately described our mission, I touted the benefits of reaching local 18-to-25-year-olds, I smiled a lot. I left behind a meticulously designed media kit. For weeks, we didn’t sell a single ad.
And then I walked into Mangia Italiano, a dusty Italian restaurant and bar on a late-night block. I asked for the manager, took a deep breath, and started the pitch from the top.
The manager interrupted me immediately: “How much does it cost?”
I was determined to finish the pitch. I handed him the media kit and rate card but continued rattling off figures on disposable income and target demographics.
He ignored me. One look at the rate card, and he pulled out his checkbook. “I’ll take it.”
My first sale had nothing to do with my pitch. My well-rehearsed speech proclaiming the power of print media didn’t matter one bit. I had failed to understand that for local businesses, the bottom line is all that matters: Can we afford to run an ad? If not, let’s move on. Maybe next time.
Putting the bottom line (in my case, how much ads cost) up front allows your reader to make a decision much faster. If they’re busy, or time-constrained, or overloaded with information, taking time to structure your writing will pay dividends in trust, respect, and appreciation.
Of course, starting every email with a paragraph titled “BLUF” isn’t going to magically make your communication clearer. In the civilian world, where we don’t have 100-page guidebooks to dictate official communication patterns, communication requires lots of subtlety and self-awareness.
Being direct and getting straight to the point isn’t always the right approach. If you know your audience is already skeptical, putting the bottom line up front may cause the reader to ignore everything that comes after it.
But in the right circumstances, starting off your communication — email, presentation, or document — with the main point is powerful.
A presentation at work might open:
Because of recent budget cuts, we’re changing our operational strategy. Starting next week, the design team will no longer hire consultants to advise us on branding. Instead, we’ll produce more positioning and strategy work in-house.
Being up front with your bottom line puts a lot of pressure on those first few sentences. Without context, any ambiguity is subject to misinterpretation. If you’re like me, using BLUF means spending way more time on just a few word choices.
It may not be easy to immediately start using BLUF. If you typically communicate in a more conversational style, your colleagues might interpret your brevity as sudden coldness. If you’re already at a disadvantage due to office politics, gender bias, or cultural stereotypes, BLUF might not be the right approach.
But as we rely more on asynchronous communication without the benefit of face-to-face interaction, tools like BLUF will be valuable in saving time and energy that’s better spent on picking the right emoji reaction in Slack.
Matthias Gafni and Joe Garofoli, “Exclusive: Captain of aircraft carrier with growing coronavirus outbreak pleads for help from Navy,” San Francisco Chronicle, published March 31, 2020, updated April 9, 2020: https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Exclusive-Captain-of-aircraft-carrier-with-15167883.php. ↩
Department of the Army, Army Regulation 25–50: Information Management: Records Management: Preparing and Managing Correspondence, Chapter 1: Preparing Correspondence, section IV: Effective Writing and Correspondence: The Army Writing Style, sub-section 36: Standards for Army writing, paragraph b, p. 6: https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/r25_50.pdf. ↩
Department of the Air Force, The Tongue and Quill, AFH 33-337, Chapter 6: Step 4 (Organize and Outline), p. 54, published May 27, 2015, updated November 2015, certified current July 27, 2016: https://static.e-publishing.af.mil/production/1/saf_cio_a6/publication/afh33-337/afh33-337.pdf. ↩
Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile (New York: Crown, 2020), Kindle Edition, pp. 154–155. ↩