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Even SEALs Have To Face An Empty Computer Screen

I recently had the pleasurable challenge of working with seven Navy SEALs on communication skills. They were fine young men, and their writing and presentation skills varied based on their educational level, from a GED to a college degree. But all of them were eager to learn.

Why, you may ask, would these highly trained elite warriors want instruction in effective business communication? I mean, how much writing or public speaking are you going to do if you’re guarding the president of Afghanistan or training indigenous fighters in mountain strongholds?

The answer is: Plenty. The fact is that they’re not always in the field. When I worked with them, they were doing weapons and tactics evaluations at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Virginia Beach, Va. In other words, they were doing staff work, and staff work requires communication skills.

For one thing, they had to write reports and memos to their civilian superiors in, for instance, Washington, and they had to phrase their writing in terms that non-combatants can understand on one reading. For another, once they’re deployed, they often find themselves briefing ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. One of the SEALs even had to make a presentation to President George W. Bush.

So that’s why they asked me to help them: All the hard-won knowledge in the world has little value if you can’t develop the communication skills to share it with the people who set policy, spend money and make far-reaching decisions. And those people are busy, so communication training, whether for writing skills or presentation skills, has to focus on brevity, clarity and getting to the point.

For any writer, that starts with the “five Ws and one H” that rule the thinking of even the rawest cub reporter at any newspaper: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

I was gratified to see that the SEALs had already been trained to answer those questions as they approach so-called “sitreps” (situation reports) involving tactical situations.

I told them that the same logic applies to all varieties of business communication: Tell the readers what you want (or what you want them to understand) and then tell them why that’s important. Then you can start backing up your premise with details.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? The SEALs called it “bottom line up front.” Unfortunately, that leaves the acronym-happy military with…BLUF.

Well, at least they’re trying, aren’t they?

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