Nobody Wants to Read Your Strategy
How to use universal principles to write strategy that gets read
She was so excited. Giddy, even, that it was done. After months of work, my officemate finished the organization’s strategy. The boss ok’d it. It was over.
Naturally, nobody read it.
Nobody wants to read your strategy either. I mean nobody. Not your coworkers. Not your CEO. Not your commander. Not your mom. Nobody.
Why not? They’re boring, for one. Strategies don’t make bestseller lists, do they? They’re narrow, specific to a challenge most folks aren’t invested in. In an age of distraction and diminished attention spans, strategy’s just not worth the time. There are better options.
Strategists make the problem even worse when they use supersized language like “utilize” instead of “use.” Strategists’ think it sounds smart, but the reality is it’s just crummy writing with a side of weapons-grade jargon.
So how do you get people to read strategy?
Same way you get them to read anything.
If Steven Pressfield knows one thing, it’s that nobody wants to read your shit.
His 2016 book on the subject highlights what Pressfield calls the most important skill for any writer, ever:
“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is he following where I want to lead her?”
Pressfield then passes on the “universal structural elements of all stories”—the Hook, the Build, and the Payoff.
Let’s translate Pressfield’s process into strategy-speak. Let’s use a Challenge (that hooks a reader), a Context (that builds understanding), and a Compass (that pays off as a strategy).
The Challenge introduces the scenario, the problem. It implicitly suggests why a reader should care about this particular problem. And just as important, why now? This section highlights the gaps, the weaknesses that give rise to the Challenge (what about Blue Team makes Blue Team susceptible to this Challenge/Red Team?).
The Context provides the who, what, when, and where. It zooms out from the precise problem to a larger sense of the context. It might provide a timeline or some key issues that bear on the issue. This section highlights Blue Team’s strengths and assets that can be mobilized to address the Challenge/Red Team.
The Compass is where you orient toward success. This is the punchline. It’s a theory of success—If X, then Y. If we do more of this activity, we will achieve the objective result. This doesn’t have to be rewriting the genetic code or building the great pyramid. More often it’s a simple story about how we take today’s wrong and fix it going forward. This section provides a clear North Star. It communicates competitive choices and reveals priorities.
If you do this right, there’s a circular structure. Your reader will first think, Wow, that’s a problem—then take in the full sweep of the issue. At the end, you want them to think, Yep, that’ll work. And I want to pitch in to help solve this problem.
Challenge, Context, Compass.
The ultimate test is whether a subordinate can pick the strategy document up—from a new hire to an experienced veteran—and run with it to advance the organization’s goals. That’s the gold standard.
You’ve got to aim for two sweet spots. First, it can’t be so up-in-the-clouds that it’s not useful in navigating the real world. It also can’t be so laser-focused on one tree that the forest falls out of view. Readers have to see both tree and forest. Second, if the strategy is entirely about an adversary (Red) or entirely about yourself (Blue), both are wrong. Focus on the interaction between the two. It’s less about either/or, and more about both/and. Think of it like tennis. It wouldn’t make sense to look at only one side.
While there can be no hard-and-fast rules here, there are some principles worth passing on. Use these as a check-up.
Universal Principles of Strategy-making:
Every strategy must be believable.
Every strategy must be simple (written at or below a ninth-grade level).
Every strategy must be based on what you actually have to use.
Every strategy defines success in plain language (a North Star shines for all to see).
Every strategy must have a theory of success.
Every strategy must imply a story of how the future will play out.
Every strategy must set priorities and make choices.
Every strategy must be more prescriptive than descriptive.
Of the eight above, my officemate’s strategy scored a zero. It was unreadable, so nobody read it.
And so that strategy slipped away into the ether, where most strategies go, never to be thought of again.
*Afterthought: “There’s a better way to do it—find it.” (Thomas A. Edison)
*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Really, what do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth.
All the very best & see you next week, Matt
Dan, I'm literally in the thick of too many things to count at work but I'm literally dropping them all to respond - mostly because it's so good to get a note from you! (I hope you & yours are doing well...we're hanging in there.) There's a bit of a duck in my response in that I think your strategy has to be as precise as it can be yet still understood by the entire organization. I think there's two common faults in that space. One, folks make it so narrow as to render the document unusable when something unanticipated comes along (which happens often). Or, second, folks write it so abstract and disconnected from reality that it doesn't really apply to much of anything. I think the balance between God's-eye and worm's-eye matters a lot. As to your comment about "marketability" - I think of it this way. Yes, the thing needs to be read and understood by all (which is a heavy lift if you think about it) - but it's also got to be grounded in facts and fundamentals - in short, it can't just be fluff and shine (because fluff and shine get tossed aside pretty easily).
I really liked this one! Good reminders. It can be tricky to balance the "sales/marketability" of strategy when one is also racking their brain to come to a workable approach to solve a complicated problem. But as the article says, you need both - what good is a winning approach if no one can understand it? @Matt, how do you balance these differing needs as you go through your planning & strategzing?