BLUF: Put the main takeaway – the bottom line – of your message at its very beginning.
BLUF? What on Earth is that?
BLUF stands for “Bottom Line Up Front”. It is a term coined, apparently, in the US Army, and it denotes a model for effective message writing. The idea is to reverse the usual method, where you first present your case, your arguments and justifications, and then – at the end – draw the conclusions or decisions. Instead you put the conclusion, the main thing you need the reader to understand, at the very beginning of the message; then you can provide more details.
The content of the BLUF would typically include – in a very concise form – the answers to the five W’s: What, Where, When, Who and Why, or a subset of these as makes sense. In an organization that uses this method, the paragraph would begin with the actual term BLUF, thus:
BLUF: Starting June 12, all meetings in the company will end 5 minutes before the hour or half hour, to allow people to get to their next meeting on time.
Variations on a theme
There are many methods to draw attention to the key parts of a message; you can highlight key sentences with color or a bold font, and so on. The advantage of BLUF of course is that you don’t need to scan a long document to see what’s highlighted – you run into it right at the start, so there’s no way you can miss it. It also forces the sender to think what the key message is and phrase it succinctly, which results in better focus.
Incidentally, BLUF isn’t the only such system used by the US Army (and, thus, denoted by an acronym). They also use BLIND, a method which requires that the email start with the elements:
- BL = Bottom Line
- I = Impact on the organization
- N = Next steps to be taken
- D = Details
However, BLUF is simpler and probably just as effective in most cases.
In a sense, the best BLUF style message is one that only contains the BLUF paragraph and nothing else; and better yet, if the takeaway is very short, you can stick this in the subject line (and terminate it with <EOM>, for End-of-Message, to indicate that the body is empty). Less is more!
Tips for managers: driving adoption
Of course, it isn’t enough to have a good structure concept for emails: you want to have everyone in your organization adopt the concept in practice, thereby making their coworkers more productive. This is always difficult, people being people – obstinate, habit-bound and too busy (and selfish) to bother optimizing their messages. There are a number of approaches you can take here, as a manager:
- You can tell people to do it – tell them, train them, send them directives, and so on. Of course, your mileage may vary – considerably.
- You can role model by including a BLUF in all the messages you emit. Naturally, the more senior you are, the more effect this will have.
- You can enforce the talk by refusing to read (and returning to sender) any message that fails to have the BLUF section. If you are the boss, this will do the trick.
- You can install technology that will enforce the correct usage. This is what I call Technology Assisted Behavior Change, and I covered it at length here. The Intel Email Effectiveness Coach (IEEC) described in that post did not enforce BLUF, but it did suggest adding a Management Summary to lengthy emails, which comes close (the difference being that a BLUF paragraph doesn’t intend to summarize the entire message, only its bottom line).
Tips for individuals: solo adoption
OK, you say – but what can you do if you are not a manager, and the manager above you doesn’t intend to enforce BLUF usage across your group?
The BLUF method is one of those cases where solo adoption still makes sense. It is not dependent on others; nothing’s stopping you from using it in your outgoing messages as of this very day. The benefit to others also brings a benefit to your own work, since recipients are more likely to do what you want them to do when they can quickly get the gist of your emails. If the term BLUF is not familiar in your group, you can instead prefix the paragraph with Bottom Line instead of BLUF. Or you could use BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front), which is sure to draw attention and get others to adopt the system. You’re welcome to link the phrase to this blog post by way of an explanation.
But the greater effect will come if you can get this method used across your entire organization, and I encourage you to try and get BLUF adopted in this manner – once your coworkers see it in action in your own mail, you can bring it up with management or in a team meeting and start evangelizing!