Create a Clear Big Picture

The first step in creating clear messages is to understand and plan the big picture. Because you are goals-oriented and receiver-centric, you should already have an idea of what you want to accomplish and how you should adapt the message for your receiver. In this section, we will consider several tips for building clarity at the big-picture level, including identifying a clear central idea, leading with the bottom-line up front, coherently clustering and logically ordering information, and ensuring stand-alone sense.

Identify the Central Idea

A good business message should advance one clear, central idea. In general, this central idea should be your instrumental goal. So if your instrumental goal is to ask your manager for a raise based on your performance, that request should be the central idea of your message. You may bring up evidence or sub-points, but your message should remain focused on your request for a raise.

Having a central idea is key to effective communication. Particularly with emails, letters, and other correspondence, introducing multiple topics may lead to important information being lost or questions not being answered. If you need to send your boss an update on a project with one client and you need to address a problem with a different client, it would be much clearer to send two separate messages—one for each client. That way, each email can be addressed separately, and the problems with one client won’t distract your boss from your success with the other client.

The same principle applies to spoken messages. When you are giving a presentation, you should carefully plan your central idea and then stick to it. Take the time to craft your presentation so that your central idea is clear and is supported by all your slides and your spoken messages. Perhaps the best example of the one clear idea comes through in TED Talks. These talks—which run about 15 minutes long—always intensely focus on a single idea.[1]

In longer, more complicated documents, such as reports or proposals, there are usually several main sections. But even with multiple sections, there should be a single, central idea. Understanding your overall goals and your clear central idea will help you organize the chapters, sections, arguments, points, and sub-points.

Whether your message is short or long, written or spoken, being focused on the central idea will strengthen your message by making it easier for your receivers to understand and to act on.

Lead with the Bottom Line Up Front

In business, you can count on your receivers to be busy people, so you need to respect their time by providing the clearest and most efficient messages you can. Instead of building toward your conclusion and presenting your main idea as a punch line, you should start with what you want your receiver to conclude. Management communication experts Mary Munter and Lynn Hamilton called this approach leading with the “bottom line up front” or “BLUF” for short.[2]

Having a BLUF orients readers to what will come in the message. By starting with conclusion up front, your receiver will be better able to understand the rest of your argument and reasoning.

Writing a BLUF can be as simple as putting your request as the opening statement of your message.

Due to a schedule conflict, we need to reschedule Monday’s meeting.
Can you send a status update on the project?
I recommend using Ream Case Co. as our exclusive supplier.


Your Turn: The Power of a BLUF

Assume for a moment that you are Geoff Whitmore, a manager at McGregor Co., and just received the message below from one of your employees.

Step 1. Read the message carefully. At the end of each sentence, ask yourself, do I know why I’m getting this message? And what action do I have to take? Put a star by the paragraph when you know for sure what you need to do with this message.

SUBJECT: McGregor Family Scholarship
DATE: March 2, 2024






Last February, I applied for and was awarded a McGregor Family scholarship to pay for my MBA, which I was planning to start in August 2022. However, due to a family medical emergency, I was unable to begin the MBA program because I was the primary caregiver for my family member.

At the time, we talked about being able to defer my scholarship for one year without reapplying.

With things settling down at home, I began the process of getting officially enrolled in the MBA program for fall. So I reached out to HR. And that’s when I learned that the form that I filed for the deferral was filled out incorrectly. So instead of it getting processed as a deferral, it got put into the system as a cancellation.

I was told that I would need to reapply for the scholarship. But the deadline was yesterday. So it looks like I would have to wait another year to apply.

I know that I should have followed up with HR sooner and that it is ultimately my responsibility that I missed the deadline. But could you please grant me a one-week extension to this deadline so I can submit a full application? Having a McGregor Family scholarship would make a world of difference for me–especially given my family situation.

Thank you very much for considering this request.

Step 2. Now that you know the purpose of this message, write a BLUF in the box at the top of the message.


Questions to Ponder
1. How much time did it take for you to make sense of the message without a BLUF? How much time did it take when you read your BLUF first?

2. In what ways does a BLUF help you understand the message?

3. How might using BLUFs help you achieve your communication goals?

Cluster Information Coherently

Once your BLUF is in place, the next step is to build points and sub-points that support the clear, central idea. The strategy for building points is to cluster information into internally coherent points. Clustering refers to the grouping of similar ideas. Internal coherence means that any points and sub-points you make should “stick together.” Another way to think of internal coherence is that each point also should be a single idea.

For instance, if you were to write a letter of recommendation, all the things you want to say about your employee’s work ethic would be in one point, and all the things about his or her data analytics ability would be in another point. You wouldn’t want to mix those ideas together, as that would make your message harder to follow. Follow these tips and tools for clustering information coherently.

The first step is to anticipate what information your receiver needs. If you are making a pitch for new recycling program, your receiver may be particularly interested in information on costs of implementing the program, stories of successes in other similar-sized companies, and information on how much waste your company is producing.

The next step is to gather as much information as you need. We’ll cover evidence strategies in much more depth in Chapter 5. But for now, start with what you already know, then gather more information by consulting publications or searching online. You may also need to gather information from your own insights, analysis, and research (such as customer surveys or market analysis).

With all the needed information in hand, it is time to cluster it into internally coherent points. There may be multiple, coherent ways to organize information. For instance, if you are comparing similar vendors, you might organize your information by company. Or you might organize by sales feature. Test different combinations to find the clusters of information that will be most convincing for your receiver.

A few tools can help you cluster your information. First, you can use the classic outline to cluster your thoughts. The classic outline (sometimes called the Harvard outline) uses roman numerals, numbers, and letters along with indents to group information into main sections, subsections, and details.

Second, you can use a mind map. A mind map visually represents the relationships and hierarchies between different pieces of information. In a mind map, a central point is surrounded by several branches, each of which has branches of its own. The result is more fluid, more visual, and less strictly hierarchical than the classic outline.

Third, you can use a tool called Minto’s Pyramid. Communication consultant Barbara Minto designed the pyramid specifically to structure business communication.[3] In the pyramid, you put the main idea (or recommendation) at the top, with a few smaller supporting ideas underneath to support the main idea, and facts, data, and analysis on the bottom to support the whole structure.

Each of these clustering strategies can help you organize your information and arguments in a way that will be most effective for your receiver.

At this point, you need to check for internal coherence by making sure that all the information in each cluster logically fits together. For instance, if you cluster on product affordability, every piece of information in that cluster should deal with prices. Any extraneous information about the product that doesn’t deal with affordability needs to be moved into a different cluster.

Finally, write each cluster as a short and focused paragraph. You may have been taught in school that a paragraph must be at least three sentences long. In business communication, however, the danger is more often that paragraphs are too long. Sometimes paragraphs can be as short as a single, clear sentence that makes a simple point.

Order Points Logically

Logical ordering refers to sequencing your points so that your receiver can see connections between your ideas and follow the progression of your message with ease. When information is presented out of logical order, it may become difficult to follow the message, or the message may feel “inside out” to your receiver. You want to avoid this problem by logically ordering your points.

In business communication, there is not a single right way to logically order points. Instead, the most logical organization depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Consider these commonly used organizational patterns and the examples of different messages that fit best with each pattern.

The problem-solution organization presents a problem followed by a solution (or several solutions) to that problem. This organization works well in business proposals, advertising, and sales, where the goal is to persuade the receiver of the value of the product or service being offered. It also works well in internal proposals for things such as recommending new processes.

This pattern shows how specific actions lead to specific results. Cause-effect organization works well for status reports that offer an explanation of why an effort succeeded or failed. This organizational pattern—especially if presented in an “If/Then” approach, also works well for supporting predictions or recommendations.

In this organizational pattern, you order points as they occur in time sequence. This pattern is effective for recounting a timeline of events or providing a sequence of steps your receiver will have to follow.

To create a spatial organization, you order points to reflect their relationship in physical space. This organization can include things like top-to-bottom, left-to-right, west-to-east, etc. This kind of organization can be helpful for delivering sales territory status reports or describing a proposal for a website redesign.

In this approach, you order points by subject or topic. The topics are all related to the main idea, but there is no inherent logic to how they should be sequenced. For instance, if you were comparing vehicles to purchase, you might organize points around price, maintenance and repair costs, options, and style. Even though those points could be presented in any order, leading with your strongest points is usually a more effective approach.

For all organizational patterns, make sure that your points and organizational logic support your clear central idea. If there are too many points, or if the message is too complex, consider separating it into smaller, more focused messages.

Test Your Message for Stand-Alone Sense

The final element of big picture clarity is making sure your message has stand-alone sense. Stand-alone sense means that there is enough information in the message you’re your receivers can understand it even if they have no additional information or context. Ask yourself the following two questions to determine if your message passes the test.

First: If people completely unfamiliar with the situation read this message, will they understand it? (If it is a high-stakes message, you might even have someone unfamiliar with the situation read it.) If you have written your message clearly, your receiver should have no need to track down additional information or ask questions to understand your message. If additional information or context is needed (another message, previous conversations, or other shared knowledge), you will need to provide that context within your message.

Second: If I find this message several years from now, will I understand it and have all the information I need? The reason for this question is that a written message should make just as much sense whether it is read today, tomorrow, or years from now. If a message requires the receiver to remember names, dates, details, information, or conversations that are not included in the message, then it cannot stand alone. You should go back and enter the missing pieces.

One tip for making sure your message has stand-alone sense from the beginning is to ask and answer the “5 Ws and H” in your message. That means asking Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. If answers to any of those questions are relevant to your clear, central idea, make sure you include that information in your message.

  1. Chris Anderson, the TED curator, explains how limiting your talk to “just one major idea” is the key to great public speaking. Watch the video at
  2. Mary Munter and Lynn Hamilton, Guide to Managerial Communication: Effective Business Writing and Speaking, 10th ed. (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2014).
  3. You can learn more at: Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking, 3rd rev. ed. (Harlow, UK: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2009).


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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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