Keeping things simple

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I recently came across a memo on the National Archives website from Winston Churchill dated August 1940 addressed to all members of the War Cabinet and their staff.

Entitled ‘Brevity’ it starts:

‘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.’  He then goes on to talk about the different ways in which information can be presented in formats that make it far easier to digest including:

  • Setting out reports in ‘a series of short, crisp paragraphs’
  • Presenting headline facts, and appending the analysis
  • Using headings that can be expanded, if necessary
  • Writing in succinct and simple language, avoiding phrases that are ‘mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word’.

When I came across this memo, it was like music to my ears, or, to follow Churchill’s instruction, I should probably just say ‘gratifying’.

When I shared the memo with my team last week, they knew exactly where I was going – how, as bid writers, our objective is always to present the client’s answer to a question with as few, simple words as possible, so that we make life for the evaluator easy.

As a former evaluator for a major UK Government department awarding contracts and grants over £200m per annum, the bids that won were invariably those that presented information objectively and in plain English. It was easy to grasp and to understand. Those that used complex sentence structure, words that I had to look up in a dictionary, or tried to describe a concept in a convoluted manner, lost me very quickly. I may have tried to understand what was on the page, but subconsciously (or maybe, even consciously), the bidder was at an immediate disadvantage.

‘If the evaluator fails to understand a paragraph the first time they read it, then we have lost them from the outset’ – those that have gone through the training we offer will recognise that advice. And how true it is….

So, whether you are writing bids, reports, or any other kind of document, stick to good old plain and simple language.  Not only will it make it easier for the reader to digest and retain, but, in the words of Winston, ‘the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking’.

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