Managers who screen suggestions are busy and have short attention spans, so the ability to be succinct can make or break an idea. They want proposals that are neither skimpy nor turgid. And 250 words is often just right.

The ability to be succinct can make or break an idea.

But how short is too short? How long is too long?

Markus Reitzig of London Business School says this about submitting innovation ideas:

The optimal word length in the company I studied was about 250 words; other organizations will have different norms. The fact is, the lower-level managers who screen proposals are busy and have short attention spans. A proposal that is too long may be eliminated from further consideration irrespective of the potential merit of the idea; a long and turgid proposal frequently suffers from lack of focus. However, a skimpy proposal may also be an indication that the submission is in fact insufficiently thought through and fails to answer the basic questions.

Markus Reitzig is an assistant professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at London Business School.

Image courtesy of Reitzig’s faculty page.

Tone is also important. Reitzig says that highlighting an idea’s upside — as opposed to focusing on the problem it will mitigate — gives it a better chance of receiving further consideration.

He gives this example: “You can say (1) that an idea makes $1 million more per year for the company; or (2) that the company has a problem, which unless fixed will cost the company $1 million per year. The first statement is positively worded. Chances are, it will pass the selection. The second one, saying exactly the same thing in terms of content, stands a worse chance because it is not framed positively.”

Reitzig’s tips come from his recent MIT Sloan Management Review article “Is Your Company Choosing the Best Innovation Ideas?

This post, as a measure, is 256 words.

1 Comment On: The Best Length for an Idea Proposal

  • Manabu Tokunaga | September 19, 2011

    Short and efficient communications, especially considering the recipients’ side of how they are handling communications have been very effective for me. To this effect, people (like me, an engineer) should study how ad copies are being made.

    Namely, using Call To Action keywords in the subject line and always write the body in terms of how the recipient will benefit (or get to avoid risks) have better success.

    In terms of how short is good enough. The entire message should fit in one screen of display tools most used often by the recipient (Outlook, iPhone etc.) (98 words.)

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