Get to the Point!

Use BLUF to orient your audience. Right away.

Karen Caldwell, 4 January 2023

Want people to pay close attention to your message, read your emails, or learn from your video or blog? Orient your audience by getting to the point. Right away. You’ll be following brain science and the science of learning.

The brain seeks meaning before detail.

Think about that for a moment.

Our brains seek patterns. It makes learning easier. Imagine the impact on your audience (listener, viewer, reader) when you start your communication with the pattern – the meaning.

A little abstract, right? Let’s look at an example.

Example 1: Tell me already!

Your friend is panting, flushed, clearly shaken up. “You will not believe what just happened,” he exclaims.

What happened, you ask?

He takes a deep breath and launches into the start of his day, “So I wake up at 7 – my usual time – and I’m hungry. I figure I’ll make oatmeal today cuz we have a lot of that maple syrup…”

Uhhm, wait, wait, what happened? Why are you so frazzled, you ask?

“Oh man, you’re never going to guess, seriously. So I’m making the oatmeal thinking….” Then he launches into yet more minute detail and you have no idea where this is going.

At this point, the details are pretty meaningless to you and your brain is screaming “give me something to hang this on, something to help me tie these details together”. This happens all the time, right?

To illustrate, check out this quick (2-minute) video from the US government, USCIS Plain Language: Put Your Main Message First.

Now you know why this is such a frustrating scenario. Your brain is seeking meaning. Before details. The details are much more meaningful when they come after the meaning, or main idea or point.

Our brains behave in the same meaning- and pattern-seeking way, not only in our personal lives but also when it’s learning and at work.

Example 2: My time is valuable. Don’t waste it.

Ever get an email that was an epic novel with no clear point? The writer tells you detail upon detail, with no end in sight, and you have to re-read to actually find why they are writing? Time consuming and frustrating, right?

Instead of starting with their reason for writing – the meaning – they make you waste valuable time to find it yourself.

Don’t do that. Value your reader’s time, get to the point, state your reason for writing – the meaning, and mission accomplished.

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)

Speaking of accomplishing missions, the military’s approach to communication follows a “meaning first” approach with their simple & straightforward BLUF acronym: state the bottom line, up front. It’s efficient, clear, and most importantly, maximizes success.

BLUFing in University

Carnegie Mellon University’s Student Academic Success Center does a great job of not only illustrating BLUF visually, but demonstrating how it looks in writing. Check out BLUF (The topic sentence handout).

BLUFing in the Workplace (Emails)

Kabir Seghal’s article, How to write email with military precision, for the Harvard Business Review is a concise, practical “how to” that follows the BLUF principle and provides handy examples.

Why do we do this?

Still looking for a bit of background on why our instinct is to start with background info rather than getting to the point? The US government lays out excellent points – with a hilarious and worthwhile video – to illustrate why we’re conditioned to communicate in not-so-effective or efficient ways. Check out Putting your main message first for an informative read.

Works Cited

Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). BLUF (The topic sentence handout). Student Academic Success Center.

Chen, A. (2016, Feb. 12). Putting your main message first.,what%20each%20person’s%20responsibilities%20are.

Sehgal, K. (2016, Nov. 22). How to write email with military precision. Harvard Business Review Business Writing.

USCIS. (2016, Jan. 28). USCIS Plain Language: Put your main message first. [Video]. YouTube.

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