“Bottom lining” is the ability to distill a narrative down to the core elements necessary to have the listener understand what you are conveying. “Long Talking”, where a narrative twists and bends with journeys into often unrelated facts and circumstances that don’t help the listener understand it, is the opposite. Unfortunately, there are no law school classes devoted to this practice, and we all know a professor, partner, or GC who never says in 10 words what they could say in 20. This “bottom line” article will give you an example of what both look like, and provide some quick tips to help you communicate clearly and efficiently. If you are managing up to a busy executive, this skill can make you an invaluable resource. The absence of this skill can make working with you a frustrating chore. First, a caveat. Like most things taken to their extreme, extreme bottom lining and extreme long talking are both an issue. If everything you do is bottom lined, context is missing. If everything is an exercise in long talking, the key message is lost along with the listener’s attention. The art is knowing when and how to add context.
First, let's start with concrete examples of 1) extreme bottom lining; and 2) long talking.
Extreme Bottom Lining (no context): I was driving and had an accident.
Long Talker: I can’t believe what happened the other day, just yesterday I was driving, and I was heading to the store to get some things. We were out of pasta and paper towels and dog food so I figured I would go to the Costco on El Camino. I wanted to go during the day, but I got pulled into two or three extra meetings so I had to go at night. I took the Prius because my wife had the sedan that day. So I was driving and traffic was fine and then all of a sudden I heard a loud crashing sound and I thought to myself “oh my god I’ve just been hit by this blue Ford pickup….”
You get the picture, I’ll stop.
Neither of these extremes work.
In the first example, the listener has to spend time and energy engaging in inquiry to learn the relevant facts and circumstances. While inquiry (asking questions) is great, it should not be required to obtain basic information. If someone tells you about the birth of their first child and does not include the gender, you might be dealing with an extreme bottom liner!
Similarly, the long talker version requires the listener to spend time and energy sifting through the data for what really matters. Even then, the listener will need to to go back to inquiry to ensure that they took away the pertinent information. Invariably, the long talker will struggle to provide the confirmation of what the critical information is without adding just a bit more information or color.
As with most things in life, the middle path is the best. Bottom lining with context looks like this:
Bottom Line with context: Yesterday I was driving my Prius alone at night on El Camino Blvd., and a pickup truck ran a red light and hit me on the passenger side of my vehicle. Neither of us were injured. My car had to be towed, and the damage is extensive.
As you might recall from your high school or college communications 101 class the key here is the formulation of what is communicated:
I’m anticipating that the listener will ask these questions, and the circumstances matter, so rather than make them dig in, I am providing that context proactively.
This construct applies to lawyering, and it gets much harder when you are relating the facts and circumstances surrounding a legal issue, especially when your listener is a busy executive who wants a “yes” or “no” answer (do you know one of those?). More often than not, our tendency as lawyers is that we want our clients to understand the mental machinations of our analysis before we dispense advice (and why not, we are quite proud of that work!). Is that for us or the client though?
If you understand the client’s question and their goals (see the Tech GC article: The Three Principles of Great Lawyering) then when you answer “yes and” you need to bottom line with context. I suggest the following three steps:
a.) Ask if they have questions, or would like to hear the more detailed explanation.
i.) If they do, find out where they want to dig deeper, don’t assume.
ii.) If they don’t, stop. Don’t sell after the close.
a.) If you are doing this over email, give the bottom line answer with context first, and then provide a longer version of the answer with more detail. For email tips, see The Ten Commandments of Email