You take your seat in attendance, the meeting starts, and our 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 a situation-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 consulting world 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 meets four criteria:
- Necessary: You must include this information for your audience to understand the situation—and nothing more.
- Sufficient: Your statement includes all the details the audience 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 statement with 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 question.”
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
Getting started with an SCQ sequence
When you create an effective SCQ sequence, you help your audience 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 vivaient en 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). “Storytelling that moves people.” Harvard business review 81(6): 51-55.
- Minto, B. (2009). The pyramid principle: logic in writing and thinking. Harlow, UK, Pearson Education.