The Brief Case For Brevity
It’s easy to make things complicated, but it's complicated to make things easy. These are the six elements that every good, simple brief should have.
I learnt my first lesson in simplicity when I was 21. I somehow convinced the Editor of Rolling Stone magazine to let me write something for them, and one day a CD album arrived in the mailbox of my parents house.
I raced to my bedroom, inserted it into my prized boom box, and listened to the album on repeat for hours and hours and hours. I began by writing a stream of consciousness. Thousands of words spilled out as I tried valiantly to describe the sound of each track, the feelings they evoked inside me, their lyrical composition and how it fit with the artists’ previous works. At that stage I hadn’t yet heard what would become my favourite saying about music criticism: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.
I devoured every every word of the CD liner notes (remember them?), and did as much research as I could on the burgeoning group of connected computers we called the World Wide Web. I did all of this work before I even remembered what the original assignment was: to write a 50-word review of the album.
Writing a thousand words on an album is easy, but editing it down to just 50 perfectly formed words is slow, painful work. Every character has to count. There’s no room for extraneous fluff, and each word needs to fight with 20 others to prove its rightful place in a sentence. I struggled for weeks before sending back a document with 50 punchy words attached. Somewhere in the middle of this wild editing process I discovered a hard-earned truth: it’s easy to make things complicated, and complicated to make things easy.
Every workplace has people who overcomplicate things. You can recognise them easily, by their long paragraphs of emails that ramble on and on without structure, or presentations that run to dozens of pages, or sitting in meetings that drag on for hours without much point.
There’s a real power in simplicity, and there’s nowhere more evident that when it comes to starting a project at work and setting it up for success. That’s why for this month’s One Useful Thing I’m keeping it brief.
One Useful Thing for June 2023: A Simple Brief.
A brief should be the starting point to most activities that you do at work, and nailing a brief that’s clear, to the point and, ideally, fits on just one page is ideal. A brief is the starting point to explore all of the possible solutions to something you’re trying to solve. If it’s too narrow in its remit, it restricts where you can go, and if it’s too wide, there will be too many paths to go down that will waste everyone’s time.
Even if you don’t think you need a brief before starting a new project, you will get something out of just running through this useful exercise of writing it down on paper. It will force you to think more deeply about what you’re trying to do, and allow you to easily communicate with lots of people at once.
There are literally hundreds of variations on a brief, but a great one has just six core elements that can be expressed on a single page. They are:
Every brief has a problem it’s trying to solve. If not, then what are you trying to do? You have to be brutally honest at this stage, and understand there are no sacred cows when you are coming up with a true problem. Sure, it might hurt someone’s feelings to, for example, point out an inefficiency or lack in a system or organisation they’re proud of, but you need to get to the root cause of an issue. A problem should be expressed as succinctly as you can. There are an infinite number of problems and they will vary greatly depending on what you’re trying to solve. Summarise your problem as neatly as you can so anyone reading the brief can understand it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to think more creatively about a work project with an audience of one person, or come up with a business idea with an audience of millions of people: clearly define who it is you’re aiming for. A common mistake is to say ‘it’s everyone’, but that’s really just a cop-out. The more specific you can be, the better the solution. Don’t just say it’s for ‘all people aged over 18’ – be as specific as possible. A good target market includes both demographic (who they are) and psychographic (what they do) details.
Don’t just focus on the demographic details of your potential audience, or you could go wrong. If, for example, I asked you to focus on a specific audience of men born in 1948 who were raised in the UK, had been married twice, lived in a castle and were wealthy and famous, who immediately comes to mind? The fact this targeted demographic covers both Prince Charles and Ozzy Osborne should show you the danger in just listing biographical attributes.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, advises any budding writers that the best thing they can do is to keep that picture of their one person in their heads as they write. ‘Tell your story TO someone,’ she writes. 18 ‘Pick one person you love or admire or want to connect with, and write the whole thing directly to them – like you’re writing a letter. This will bring forth your natural voice.’
If you can simplify your target market down to a single persona, you’re already halfway to getting the brief just right.
What is the business, marketing or personal aim that you’re trying to achieve? Think of the objective as the answer to your problem. If you were able to solve it, what would you hope to achieve? This should be a simple sentence or paragraph that easily sums up your goal.
The best insights come from observing the problem. This could be from noting key pain points that occur in a particular process among different people, or by asking people what they’re thinking about a product or social issue. It might also come from research into an audience that helps you uncover the reasons behind a problem.
What makes a great insight is that it’s usually a couple of layers deeper than just the surface. An insight is a peek into human behaviour that people might not realise is a truth until they’re told about it. It shouldn’t be based just on a hunch, and should be backed up by some form of objective information: research studies, surveys, statistics, facts or information that you know.
Next, write out a list of everything that you need to have in order for your project to work. What are the must-have principles you’ll use to ensure it’s the right fit for your problem? List out all of the boxes you need to tick off if it’s going to work. This list of essentials can also serve as a filter at the end of the project to ensure you’re on the right track.
The final component to really understand a problem is clarifying what you would like people to do if there was a solution to it. What is the clear Call to Action (CTA)? The CTA should be specific rather than abstract, and ideally make people feel that performing the action will make a real difference. What you want someone to do might be small, like just becoming aware of your topic, or massive, like spending millions of dollars on something you are selling. Whatever it is, keep it simple and actionable.
How to use this: When you kick off a project, create a one-page document that has heading for each of those six elements: Problem, Audience, Objective, Insight, Essentials & Actions. Then have a stab at filling them out, just to keep the entire thing to just one page.
It can be tempting to fill each answer with reams of information, but challenge yourself to keep it short and succinct, each sentence containing meaning. Once you’ve got a draft brief, circulate it for comments and ensure that everyone is across it.
And that’s it. You’ve got a clear summary of what you’re aiming to do before you start a project. In the interest of brevity, that’s a simple, brief summary of what you need to nail a brief.
I’ve just arrived back in Spain after a few productive weeks in Australia. The European weather has really dialled up a few notches in my absence, and I’d be happy if it stayed exactly at this temperature forever, thank you very much.
Among lots of great workshops, keynotes, lunches and meetings, when I was in Sydney I had a long, thought-provoking meeting with my book publisher about the next book I’m writing. It’s exploring our relationship with work and I’m aiming to make it something great to help you navigate your way though it. I’ll be spending the next few months writing and rewriting my way through it, and can’t wait to share more on that with you soon.
Yours in usefulness,