Get to the point, damn it!

A first year creative writing class at an American university was challenged by their professor to be “concise, effective and to the point” in putting together the first essay of the term. The essay, said the prof, was to incorporate four key elements: royalty, religion, sex and mystery.

Furthermore, the prof offered a cash reward to the student who wrote the best essay, in line with his “concise, effective and to the point” expectations.

The winning essay is reprinted here in its entirety: “My God,” said the Queen “I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it?”

Concise? Definitely. Effective? Undoubtedly. To the point? Absolutely.

Are you?

Can you describe what you do in 50 words or less, in terms that would make sense to your shareholders, without using a single acronym or technical term? Can you get to the point? Can you pass the elevator test?

A couple of years ago, I got on to the elevator on the ground floor of the building I was working in at about 7:15 on a fine spring morning. Since it was early yet, I was the only one in the elevator. I pressed the button for the 24th floor, where my office was located, and waited for the door to close.

With the doors six inches from closing tight, an arm in an expensive looking suit stuck itself into the cab, and the doors retreated. In stepped the president, and as he pushed the button for the 28th floor (his office in the executive suite, don’t you know), he turned to me and said, “Good morning, Hanley – tell me what you’re working on these days”. The doors closed, and the elevator started on its rapid rise.

This wasn’t the kind of man to make small talk – he may as well have asked me. “So Hanley, what are you spending our shareholder’s money on, how is what you’re doing going to add value to this company, and while I’m at it, why are you the best person to be doing the thing that you’re doing?”

I figured I had about a 30 seconds to put the project I was leading into a succinct and effective sound bite. Here was a chance to be concise, effective and to the point. That or sound like a rambling idiot as I gracelessly removed myself from the elevator on the 24th floor halfway through an inadequate description.

A bad answer would have been something like “I’m working on the integration testing of real-time data feeds from our new SCADA module into our back-end gas control systems over a T1 link.” If I’d said that, I might as well have said, “I’m just a technical geek/propeller head doin’ my thing.” I’m sure that would’ve been real meaningful stuff for the president, and a really memorable exchange on his part. Career enhancing for me too. Not.

Instead, I think I said something like, “We’re working on getting gas production information into the hands of our Calgary production engineers the minute that gas flows out of the ground. We think we can get a 20 per cent increase in production efficiencies if we can give these guys the information they need to make adjustments in spot-market gas allocations.”

I think that meant something to him. If I’d really been on the ball, I would have told him that if we could bring the thing in on budget, the project net present value was going to be about $6 million bucks.

If you got caught on the elevator with your president and he or she asked what you doing to add value to the organization (in 50 words or less), would your answer make sense to him or her? Would he or she care? Would your answer make sense to you?

More next time.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at