Sep 23, 2019
You take your seat in attendance, the meeting starts, andour friendly presenter, Bob, projects a “background” slide.
It’s filled with information related to the issue at hand. Some
of the information is clearly relevant, other appears barely peripheral, and
all of it is in font sized 12—or smaller. Bob’s logic in assembling his slide,
it seems, was that he didn’t know what exactly mattered, so he figured he’d
just include everything.
We appreciate the effort, Bob, but this “background”approach is not helpful. Next time, find a better way to frame the problem.
One way to do this is to use asituation-complication-question (SCQ) sequence.
Meet the SCQ sequence
A good substitute for a “background” slide—or chapter, in a written report—is a SCQ sequence, which summarizes the essence of the problem in a concise, three-step statement.
Borrowed from storytelling and widely used in the consultingworld after it was popularized by Barbara Minto, the SCQ approach gives the audience
all they need—and only what they need—to understand the issue at hand with
minimal effort and stress.
The situation defines the part of the universe of interest
The situation section of the SCQ sets the stage. If your
audience knows your subject somewhat, the situation should almost seem obvious
to them when they see it.
A good situation statement includes information that meetsfour criteria:
Necessary: You must include this information for your audience to understand thesituation—and nothing more.
Sufficient: Your statement includes all the details theaudience needs to understand the situation.
Positive: Nothing in the situation statement delves into the problem faced(you’ll cover that in the next section of the SCQ).
Noncontroversial: No one who reads your situation statementwith any knowledge of the topic will disagree with it.
As in many cases, what seems straightforward in a
situation statement takes a bit of craft to compose. You must ensure you’ve
captured everything your audience must know about the situation—and no more
than what the audience must know, in that there should be no extraneous or
distracting data. Also, the statement should come through with a neutral,
balanced tone stated in such a way that even your most contentious audience
member couldn’t disagree with it.
The complication defines the one problem in that part of the universe
In screenwriting, the complication is called the inciting event.
The complication statement identifies the problem you face. When the complication arises, the audience sees that not all is well in the situation you’ve outlined.
The question summarizes what the rest of the communication will answer
The situation and complication statements should lead the
audience to the third step in a logical sequence. Given the situation and the
complication, what question do we need to answer? We call this the “key
The graphic above helps to illustrate how the situation
statement identifies the area of interest, the complication specifies the
problem of interest in that area, and the key question zeroes in on where you
want to focus.
An SCQ example
[IMAGE MISSING: SCQ-Example-1024x410.png]
Getting started with an SCQ sequence
When you create an effective SCQ sequence, you help youraudience easily and quickly focus—unlike our friend Bob above.
Most SCQs end up requiring one paragraph—maybe two. Seventeenth
century French poet La Fontaine illustrates this beautifully in one of the most
concise situation-complication sequence I’ve ever seen: Deux coqs vivaienten paix : une poule survint,/Et voilà la guerre allumée. (“Two cocks in
peace were living, when/A war was kindled by a hen.”) (de La Fontaine, 1882).
The end product—a successful SCQ sequence—is simple,
minimalist, clear, and elegant. It takes some effort to get there, yet the work
is worth it.
Chevallier,A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford,UK, Oxford University Press, pp. 35–38.
McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance,structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting, New York:HarperCollins, p. 189.
McKee, R. and B. Fryer (2003). “Storytellingthat moves people.” Harvard business review 81(6): 51-55.
Minto,B. (2009). The pyramid principle: logic in writing and thinking.Harlow, UK, Pearson Education.