Why make your project proposal or business plan a single page?

Despite my affinity for numbers and systems thinking, a large part of my work involves communicating concepts – many times abstract and esoteric – to clients, prospects, and others. As I shared in last month's e-newsletter, we recently faced a challenge with a client wanting a system that only handled 85% of their routine situations. My associate and I tried many ways to explain why this was a problem for him, the system's users, and us. Nothing we said “clicked” with him.

As I browsed my bookcases looking for books that might help me explain systems concepts to a non-systems person, I happened upon an excellent book published in 1988, More Programming Pearls: Confessions of a Coder, by Jon Bentley. The book's chapters – actually called “columns” – are updated and expanded versions of his “Programming Pearls” column in the VERY esoteric monthly journal, Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery. Although most of these columns are targeted toward computer scientists and hardcore application developers, one column contains lessons that can be readily adapted to business.

Bumper-Sticker Computer Science

The book's “Column 6” is titled “Bumper-Sticker Computer Science” – the one chapter in the book approachable by non-systems folks. In this chapter, the author presents a list of the pithy pieces of advice people sent to him.

“If you can't write it down in English, you can't code it.” – Peter Halpern, Brooklyn, New York

My comment – you can’t code it or present it or sell it. This is obviously true, and here's a related one that came to me – If you can't write it down in English, you can’t delegate a task, your staff can't do their work, an executive won’t understand your proposal, and employees will end up handling exceptions differently every time.


“If you have too many special cases, you are doing it wrong.” – Craig Zerouni,,Computer FX Ltd., London, England

This is true for just about anything and everything, yet the “why” may not be obvious. Too many special cases imply you haven't really thought about simplifying the problem and developing a small number of general cases to handle ALL situations.


“The sooner you start to code, the longer the program will take.” – Roy Carlson, University of Wisconsin

This is related to my comment on the prior piece of advice, and applies to coding, writing, deciding, presenting – whatever. Until you've thought deeply about the problem and how it needs to be solved, you're really just guessing – and, if you’re like me, my first idea is almost always never the best idea.

While these pieces of advice are all good, there's one item that really stuck with me.

The One Page Principle

To me, this is the best piece of advice in the chapter:

“[One Page Principle] A {specification, design, procedure, test plan} that will not fit on one page of 8.5-by-11 inch paper cannot be understood.” – Mark Ardis, Wang Institute

Why is this such an important principle? Because, in my experience, the times I've had to struggle to articulate and then simplify, Simplify, SIMPLIFY my message, the end result ALWAYS fits on one piece of letter size paper.

Mark Twain once wrote to a friend, “I apologize for such a long letter – I didn't have time to write a short one.” A letter becomes long when you write down your thoughts as they come to you. This stream-of-consciousness technique is fine for your personal journaling or personal correspondence, yet you should avoid it in business writing.

Shortening a system specification, written article, proposal, or executive summary is hard, because you have to cut, prune, write, rewrite, and sometimes even throw it out entirely and start over ... until you have successfully distilled your content to its essence.

I experience this every year when I write my December e-newsletter that focuses on a seasonal message, generally containing my reflections on something I've seen serving breakfast at Greensboro Urban Ministry. The December e-newsletter is typically around 1,200 words and frequently goes through five or so rounds of editing – and the occasional “I think you need a fresh start on this article” feedback from my long-time editor – until the content “feels right” and strikes the right balance of calling out an injustice while also offering ideas to help.

I also like to share this seasonal message as broadly as possible, so I submit it to the Greensboro News & Record. Its typical word count is 600 words, meaning I have to cut my e-newsletter in half if I want a chance at getting it published. Trust me, taking out 50% of my words while retaining the overall message forces me to find my essential message by cutting, rewriting, honing, polishing, and otherwise making my message as focused and concise as possible.

A funny thing happens while putting my words on a crash diet – the article gets better. Because I write both the full length and 600-word versions in late November and early December, certain phrases or even whole paragraphs of the short version replace the originals in the full length THA version before it launches.

And wouldn’t you know, the 600-word version fits on one sheet of letter-sized paper.

Applying the One Page Principle

My December articles revolve around words, while my day-to-day work deals with various types of processes and information systems. Since these are both invisible intangibles, and most of my client communications are to line-of-business executives and managers, I need to make intangible concepts concrete for them.

Our clients need to understand things quickly, so I put in the time and effort to produce one-page diagrams or exhibits so they can quickly “get it.” In fact, in the Going from Doodle to Client Roadmap e-newsletter, I share seven draft versions required to get to the eighth and final one-page version. You can also see many example one-pagers in my Making the Invisible Visible e-newsletter and this month's The One Page Principle video.

Applying the One Page Principle seems easy, yet it is incredibly hard. Still, when you have an important meeting with a busy executive and you've only got 10 minutes to pitch your idea, it's worth all the time and effort you spend to simplify, focus, shorten, and polish your message until it fits on a single sheet of paper – letter, not legal.


Todd L. Herman