Back in the 1980s, it became fashionable to draw business lessons from great military minds, preferably ones who were centuries old. Something about the go-go 1980s made people want to look back at times like China in the 6th century BC, 15th-century Italy and 17th-century Japan.

But even military minds from this century have guidance to offer business. One example is how to write email more efficiently.

Format your emails with military precision,” advises Navy veteran Kabir Sehgal in the Harvard Business Review. He offers three main suggestions:

1.       Use keywords in your subject line so people know what they’re supposed to do with the email message. Examples Sehgal uses include ACTION, SIGN, INFO, DECISION, REQUEST, and COORD(ination). “These demarcations might seem obvious or needlessly exclamatory because they are capitalized,” he admits. “But your emails will undoubtedly stand out in your recipient’s inbox, and they won’t have to work out the purpose of your emails.”  

2.       Start with the Bottom Line Up Front, or BLUF, so people can learn the point quickly. “The reader doesn’t necessarily want to know all the background information that led to the decision,” Sehgal writes. “He or she likely wants to know ‘how does this email affect me?’ and the BLUF should answer this question every time.” In business, he uses “bottom line” instead because people might not know what BLUF means, and then goes on to write all the background information that the email recipient may need.

3.       Write efficiently, keeping email messages short and to the point using techniques such as action verbs and bullet lists (not the kind of bullets you shoot out of guns). Another interesting technique is that he links to files rather than attaching files to the email message. Aside from reducing the size of the inbox, this technique guarantees that recipients see the most recent version of the file, and ensures that they are entitled to have access to it, he writes.

On the other hand, if you prefer the Marines to the Navy, you can always use SMEAC for writing email messages and business memos. (Yes, the military loves acronyms. And while they might not be clear to you if you don’t know what they mean, a useful acronym serves as a mnemonic as well.)

SMEAC, also known as the five-paragraph order (but without the nifty acronym) stands for:

  • Situation: an overview of the relevant facts and background information, as well as the opportunity
  • Mission: what you will do
  • Execution: how you will do it
  • Administration and Logistics: the details of what you will do and how
  • Command and communications: describe your organization

When using SMEAC to present information to people in a meeting or other live situations, another critical part of SMEAC is Q for Questions (the Q is silent, explains Ken Gaffey from ERE Media). Only after the SMEAC portion is finished do people ask questions. This helps makes sure everyone has all the pertinent information first before they start asking questions and interrupting the information flow, he explains.

Don Knauss, a Marine who served as CEO of Clorox until 2014, joined Procter & Gamble soon after leaving the Marines because of SMEAC, he tells Adam Bryant in the New York Times. “Procter was more of a written than verbal culture, and business initiatives were structured through short memos,” he explains. “It was almost an exact parallel of the five-paragraph order. I said, ‘I could fit into that culture.’”

Another way the military looks at things? Military administrative tasks are typically divided into four areas, writes Chuck Z in the Help With Small Business blog. They are:

  1. Personnel
  2. Intelligence
  3. Training and Operations
  4. Supply

Breaking your resources and needs requirements along these lines may make it clearer to see what’s actually required, particularly if you and other departments are consistent about it.

Of course, no one is saying you need to go through basic training or learn to fire a weapon to be successful in business. But nonetheless, using techniques gleaned from the military can help—even if they are from this century.

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