BLUF is an acronym that stands for “bottom line up front” that’s typically only enforced in military communication to enforce speed and clarity in communication.
The basic premise is simple: put the most important details first. Do not tease or delay your main point because people are busy and their time is valuable. And make it clear—life-or-death decisions could be made using your information.
While the decisions you make may not seem (or be) as life-or-death as those the military makes – in your work with us, you’re spending time communicating with people who are busy, whose time is valuable, and who deserve the same level of consideration. That’s why BLUF is such a useful model. Whether you’re writing content, writing messages in Basecamp/Slack, or emails to co-workers or customers, BLUF can help you cut through the noise and connect.
BLUF is more than just a communications tactic. And it’s much more than just finding the “bottom line” of your message and sticking it at the top of what you’re writing.
It’s a way that if consistently applied throughout writing helps organize thoughts and understanding the narrative that lets you present information to your reader as quickly as possible. It’s a shift in how you arrange thoughts, not a quick & dirty change.
Include All the Context Your Reader Needs to Act
Whether you’re asking for help or sending something over for review, BLUF your communications with your co-workers by reducing the amount of work your recipient has to do to help you. Secondarily, try to reduce the overall amount of context-switching necessary to help you (remember that all messaging, Basecamp and Slack, is fundamentally distracting if you’re writing, coding, etc). As such, this is a good example of what not to do:
Why? Simply, this forces a context switch with no immediate resolution. Now the recipient has to read your message, type in “Sure, what’s your question?” and – once again – wait for your response before they can help you.
This may sound easy and often becomes natural in organizations. But add up dozens of instances of this throughout a single day, plus the time lost getting in and out of a flow state, this communication becomes a considerable time sink. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the effects it has on international teams working in different time zones.
One step further, equally avoid this too – where you offer slightly more context but still not enough for it to be an actionable request for your recipient:
This time, at least there’s an actual question embedded in the first message, but it’s too general to answer. It demands more context in order to be properly answered.
Instead, give as much context to the ask as you can, and do it in one message:
This kind of ask gives the recipient enough information that they can fully address your need and help you out without having to exchange multiple messages looking for context.
It gives a clear what (“examples of thought leadership”) and a clear why (“putting together a proposal for Acme”) that, together, let the recipient infer more or less the asker’s exact need. By thinking about BLUF when we communicate internally, we put our concluding thought—often, our ask—at the beginning.
Make Your Ask and Your Tone Clear
Email was one of the original contexts in which BLUF was first imagined, so let’s go through some examples. For most of the emails we send, BLUF is really simple to apply.
Begin with the ask. Give supporting details and context after that. That way, your recipient doesn’t have to scan your email up and down looking for what they actually have to do.
The first few sentences of any customer email should clearly explain the purpose and reason for the email, as well as (our desired or intended) next steps:
But not all communication, especially with clients, is so transactional. Sometimes we need to do more than convey a request. Sometimes we need to convey our excitement or a sense of urgency. In these cases, you still want to BLUF and make the purpose of the email clear.
Giving your email an emotional edge doesn’t mean putting extra processing time between your recipient and the point of the email. But, you also want to use one of the central principles behind BLUF – that information higher up in the visual hierarchy is more likely to be understood and retained – to effectively get across the emotion you want to convey.
Check out the example below, a somewhat adapted version of what we may send to a new customer at ScaleMath. After some confusion around the first article we produced for them, our main goal was demonstrating a sense of urgency about making things right and getting back on track as fast as possible. So after the first line—the BLUF—we explain our reasoning for the email in a way that makes that urgency as clear as possible:
It’s a natural human tendency, when there’s any kind of problem, to try to tiptoe around it – let alone approach it at all. Over email, this kind of approach doesn’t convey what you want it to. It creates convoluted communication. You have to actively resist that impulse and attack problems head-on using BLUF if you want to pitch solutions to problems rather than wallowing in them.
In the final draft, we begin from the assumption that there is room for improvement – as there always is – and use the first few precious sentences to make it abundantly clear that we want to and are here to fix it. Most importantly, we also demonstrate that we have a vision for what the desired outcome of fixing it looks like.
Revise Until Your Thinking Is Off the Page
Generally speaking, all content is produced and published with the aim of helping people. People who are often busy with millions of other things picking away their attention and time throughout their day. That’s why one of our core principles is not just to write something useful – your content needs to communicate efficiently with readers.
Therefore, you should apply BLUF to your content marketing the same way you do to internal and external communications. Organize your writing so that it delivers context and meaning to readers as quickly as possible.
Here’s an example of an introduction to an article discussing SaaS homepage language that aims to lay out a concept for why clear language is important to any great homepage.
Why Clear Language Is the Secret to a Great Homepage
Your homepage serves as the welcome mat for your SaaS business. Its clarity can make the difference between taking a new user through your signup process to conversion, and having them abandon your site, never to come back.
In two sentences, it fulfills its purpose. Clear language is important because your homepage is the first impression of your product – the most critical juncture in the relationship.
Here’s another example of an introduction that contains more words, appears to say more, and may seem to be more detailed but – in reality – doesn’t convey a clear point at all:
Why Clear Language Is the Secret to a Great Homepage
By keeping your language and design clear and concise for all users, whether they are new or not, you can make sure that everyone understands the core value of your product. By choosing simple language to describe your product, you will be able to communicate with everyone, whether they totally understand your field, or are novices just looking for the best product for their business.
Instead, the additions convolute the message. It draws a distinction between new and non-new users for no apparent reasons, mixes language and design, and fails to draw any conclusion as to why clear language is as important as we all know it is.
It makes the point of “communicate with everyone” but that’s largely just synonymous with the idea of “clear language” itself.
The main difference between the two introductions is very, very simple:
One was written by a writer who knew exactly what the article was going to contain and one was written by a writer who didn’t. When you know the main point you’re going to make, you can come right out and start talking about them from the beginning.
When you don’t, you have to resort to making general points that live in approximately the same thought as your main point.
See the two article introductions below as an additional example:
Founders are notoriously hard-working. Some would call themselves resilient, others wouuld say they’re highly motivated. I meet new founders every week and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to describe them. They’re all different but there’s a common thread in the way they overcome problems and keep their teams motivated. I’ve finally come up with a phrase to describe them: relentlessly resourceful.
A couple of days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.
The first introduction proceeds the way that many of our first drafts do: languorously and inductively. After some throat-clearing, it eventually gets to the point. Who knows if the reader would still be interested.
The second introduction is the actual introduction to Paul Graham’s article Relentlessly Resourceful. Begins with the main point that we’re trying to make: “A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.” Graham goes on to explain how he reached the conclusion and what its implications are for founders, but the weight of the piece sits in the first sentence.
The first version forces the reader to concentrate so they’re able to follow along with the writer’s thought process. Many first drafts do this because the first draft is where we write to figure out what we know.
When you are revising your drafts, one of your biggest priorities should be finding places where evidence of your own research process and thinking persists. You want your writing to communicate with maximum effectiveness to its reader, not to reveal the exact journey you took to reach your conclusions (including every misstep). This is what makes content feel polished and complete.
Fake / Concept vs. Real-World Writing
Most people develop the lack of awareness for this throughout traditional schooling. After all, it’s no surprise when you’re used to writing for professors, parents, friends or virtually anyone who is obligates to read your writing – you can easily forget that in the real world you need to put in the work to earn your reader’s attention.
And putting in the work means including all necessary context, getting to the point, and revising until all evidence of your thought process is off the page.
Between colleagues and customers, this attention to detail leads to better communication and better work. Above everything, better understanding. As for the content we produce as a part of the work that we do for our industry-leading clients, this’ll be reflected in people sticking around and more people coming to read your content.
The Pyramid Principle is a great read in which Barbara Minto communicates how investing time to make your communication as clear and efficient as possible is important because founders and C-suite executives are extremely busy people. In some ways, a seemingly simple change to the way you approach writing good content is assuming our own readers are equally as busy.
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