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BLUF your way to better public safety writing

If you want to ensure your critical points reach the reader, consider moving the conclusion or the necessary action to the beginning of the document

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Most of us have endured “death by PowerPoint,” a 10-paragraph email or an interminable report. Many of them bury the key point(s) deep in the text, resulting in the writer’s message being lost. Other times we get simple, straightforward presentations, reports, and emails.

Let’s face it: Many leaders in public safety came up through the ranks. We started as firefighters, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers and in other positions. Lots of us learned leadership by watching those who lead, with little formal training. And though most of us don’t have much in the way of classroom education on business communications, it’s now a big part of what we do, day in and day out.

As a leader and communicator, if you want to ensure your critical point(s) reach the reader, you should consider moving the conclusion or the necessary action to the beginning of the document. One way to do this is to “BLUF” your way through your communications.

BLUF communication

What is the BLUF method? It is a style or format of writing that puts the most essential information at the beginning of the document. The acronym stands for Bottom Line Up Front. When a reader looks at your document or email, the BLUF answers the question “How does this document affect me?” without requiring them to wade through the entire thing. The BLUF should answer the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why.

The BLUF method has its origins in the U.S. military, where clear and concise communications can be life and death matters. Because of this, it’s a perfect paradigm for messages relating to public safety.

The BLUF is like an elevator speech; it needs to be a quick summary of your point or request. Most leaders do not have the time to listen to or read a long backstory before they get to the salient point.

BLUF strategies

BLUF writing is best used when you need to convey information quickly and clearly. Email is a great place to use the BLUF method. It helps to ensure the message is communicated clearly and the recipient can quickly understand the purpose of the mail.

The best place to start is the subject line. At a minimum, the subject line should be clear about whether you are asking for action or simply supplying information. The idea is that, even if they don’t open the message, they can get the gist of what you’re trying to tell them simply by scanning the subject line.

Using the BLUF method in a briefing or presentation focuses the audience’s attention on the message while supplying supporting details as needed. Whether you are a company officer briefing your crew or a chief making a presentation to the governing body, using BLUF will improve the delivery of your message.

When drafting reports and executive summaries about complex issues, BLUF is useful for presenting important findings and recommendations at the beginning so the reader can quickly understand the essential information. BLUF, however, is not a one-size-fits-all method of writing.

The downside of BLUF

There are drawbacks to the BLUF method that can make your communication less effective. If your report is disorganized, the reader can have difficulties following your train of thought or reasoning. The writer should be aware that the BLUF method may not supply enough information or context for the reader when brevity sacrifices vital details critical to understanding the message.

As with any communication, knowing your audience is key to success. Sometimes, getting to the point up front may turn off the audience because they expect a buildup of information before getting to the bottom line.

BLUF to success

The most important requirements of using BLUF are the main point at the beginning of the document and using the active voice (e.g., “You must use your personal days by the end of the year” versus “Personal days must be used by the end of the year.”) There are five simple guidelines to follow when using the BLUF method:

  • Start with a clear and concise statement of your main point.
  • Use simple and straightforward language.
  • Avoid using jargon and unnecessary information.
  • Use bullet points or headings to enable the reader to scan and digest the information.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Always proofread and edit your document. There are no perfect first drafts.

Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Sometimes, brevity takes extra effort, but it’s almost always worth it. People who work in public safety have little enough time for reading and responding to emails; putting your primary message up front helps both them and you. While the BLUF method may require a little more time and work, using it will help ensure your message gets across concisely and effectively.

Mike Vatter has been a member of Lexipol’s Fire Content Development Team since June 2017. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration and juris doctor degree, and he graduated from the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program in 1998. Vatter has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service and local government. During his career, Vatter has served as fire chief, deputy fire chief, municipal training officer, fire prevention and investigation officer, company officer and firefighter. He also has experience in the volunteer and federal fire service.

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