How to get to the point.
How to structure your ideas clearly.
How to involve the right people (without letting any of them mess it up).
This isn’t a guide to doing a SWOT analysis or the McKinsey way. This is the bit they forgot to cover on the MBA course. How to write a strategy that zips through all the points and leaves you in no doubt about what’s going to happen, by when and why.
1. GET TO THE POINT (AND STICK TO IT)
In our time we’ve worked our way through pages of background, potted histories, diversions and explanations of anything and everything – except what the strategy is about. If something doesn’t help you make your point, cut it. Really need it? Sure? Stick it in the appendix.
2. KNOW WHO YOU’RE WRITING FOR
This will help you keep to the salient points (and stop you getting bogged down by detail).
So if you’re writing for people who already know who you are, you can go straight into what you want to do and how you’re going to do it. If you’re writing about something specialist, only include what readers need to know to help them understand your strategy (and point them elsewhere for more background reading).
3. WORK OUT WHAT TO SAY
If you need to do any research, do this as early you can (it’s harder to change the direction of a strategy later on). Talk to anyone who has an important opinion (or will have a say) at the start – it’ll help you plan it and it’ll stop any spanners in the works later. But talk to people in person or on the phone (ideas can easily get lost or misinterpreted when people write them down).
4. WORK OUT HOW TO SAY IT (AND IN WHAT ORDER)
Once you’ve got all the content, write down the bare-bone structure of it (or storyboard it if it’s a presentation). Think about this in small sections. A section might have a list of things in it, but as soon as sections start growing sub-sections like this…
A. First point.
B. Second point.
…it’s probably already become too over-complicated.
A good strategy builds an argument. One point should flow naturally after another. But it’s not an essay and you don’t always need an executive summary or a conclusion. The main thing is to make sure that your argument is logically thought-through.
Show the structure to everyone who needs to be involved (and get them to agree to it so they don’t get bogged down in detail when you reach the final draft).
5. WRITE IT SIMPLY
Writing a strategy is just like writing anything else: use straightforward language, short active sentences (and don’t use clever or long words). You want your readers to scan through your points (and digest them) quickly, so don’t write a novel. Keep to bite-sized chunks of content and use headlines to break up the sections.
6. DON’T COIN CLEVER LABELS AND NAMES
Always write sentences longhand (with verbs). Steer clear of shorthand labels or titles (with nouns). They’re hard to read. We once worked on a strategy for an organisation that had coined the phrase ‘the low carbon economy’. But whenever they used it in their writing, it clouded the meaning of what they were saying. So instead of writing something like ‘global deployment’ write it as a sentence, eg ‘how we’ll sell this in other countries’. Much clearer.
7. DON’T GO ON A ‘JOURNEY’ (TAKE IT EASY WITH THE METAPHORS)
Occasionally metaphors can be a handy way to help you explain (or help readers remember) something. But we’ve come across so many woolly and over-engineered analogies from ropes to elephants, we think you’re mostly better off without them. It’s a slippery slope. An innocent-enough idea will soon get shoe-horned into every other page of every plan and presentation in your organisation and no-one will know what it means any more.
8. STAY TONED
If you’re writing about anything sensitive, don’t change your tone. It’ll stick out. And don’t start using euphemistic words like ‘optimised’. The people who it matters most to will spot it a mile off.
9. STAY IN CHARGE
Once you’ve written a first draft, ask people to check the content and point out any gaps or inaccuracies. But if their point doesn’t help the strategy, stand your ground and explain why.
And never, ever let anyone rewrite the words directly. Commenting is fine, rewriting isn’t. It’s important to make sure one person is in charge of the strategy from start to finish.