If there is one takeaway I would like you to have about the art of powerful communication, it is this: less is more.
Make America Great Again.
Ab Aayenge Achche Din.
Take Back Control. (Get Brexit Done)
Just Do It.
Diamonds are forever. (De Beers)
All of the above are short and sweet. They are punchy and they are clear.
In conflicts too where arguments might have gone on for days or months, if you looked back, you would only recall one or two sentences that hurt you the most. In all forms of communication, people only remember one thing about whatever it is that you wish to say.
In this day and age, no matter how deep your work, how important your message or how hard you might have worked on it, your readers are only going to skim through it. Only a tiny fraction will read the entire text and this is particularly true for all things that are available online including ebooks.
So whether you are writing an email, a sales pitch, an investor deck, or anything else, is there any sense in writing War and Peace when all your audience wants is a funny meme? More importantly, no matter what you are writing, I wish to share with you three guidelines on persuasive and impactful writing taken directly from Smart Brevity by Jim VandeHei et al. If you haven’t read this book, I strongly recommend that you do. But before elucidating the guidelines, I’d like to spell out my single most important rule of writing:
The Golden Rule of Writing: Don’t waste your readers’ time.
Never ever take your reader’s time for granted. When as a writer, you are rambling on and on or are not clear about what it is that you want them to know, you are wasting their time. If you are using four paragraphs to say something you can say in one, you are doing great disservice to your readers.
As E.B. White says in The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
I know you may be tempted to set the scene or devote a page to throat-clearing before you start talking, resist that temptation. It has no place in professional comms. Get to the point and do it fast. Oh, and keep it brief. I couldn’t stress this enough: keep it brief. In fact, when writing an email or reaching out to someone, you’ll do well to adhere to the five-sentence rule by Guy Kawasaki.
“Proper email is a balance between politeness and succinctness,” he says. “Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time… Long emails go unread and if they are read, they remain unanswered.” In fact, he’s got some fairly good guidelines here on effective email communication. And, here’s the five-sentence rule. It’s not a guideline. It’s a rule. Believe me, it works. It works every single time. Here:
- Who are you?
- What do you want?
- Why me? (That is, why you are contacting the recipient.)
- What’s in it for me? (That is, why they should take any action.)
- What’s the next step?
If you can’t compose an email when reaching out to someone in five neat sentences answering the aforesaid five questions, you are not ready to approach that person. And if you are writing to someone who’s very busy (which, it seems, everyone is these days) and are not brief in your communication, your email will either be deleted or not answered at all. What’s more, they know you are not ready. If you have a hard time believing me then simply go through your sent items and see how many long emails (professional) went unanswered. Probably all of them.
But being just brief versus being brief and effective are two different things. And this leads me to the three guidelines:
1. Grab their Attention (and hold it)
Whether it’s the headline, byline or the opening sentence of your email, document, writing, anything, it’d better be good. It must catch your reader’s attention right away. Whatever is most important in your writing, say it first, say it at the beginning. Per Smart Brevity, your readers only care about two things: what’s new and why it matters. Tell them that upfront. You must have seen those cringeworthy, seemingly cheesy headlines most publications use. Guess what? They work. While you may write a better headline, the truth remains: it must grab their attention right away.
Ever wonder why some of the best movies open with a dramatic scene like shooting, the protagonist jumping off the cliff, someone dying, an accident, an intense chase, a fight etc? Now you know why. Grab their attention. But even when you have their attention, it doesn’t mean they will stay with you till the end, which leads me to the second point.
2. Stay Scannable
Make your text scannable and not one big blob. You can do that by putting quotes, headings, sub-headings, highlighting, changing the font size etc.
Most readers are in a state of what consultant Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.” This is not multitasking but a user constantly thinking about the next alert, text or email. 1
Smart Brevity lists four culprits that jeopardize the scannable-readability of your text. Too much text. Too much jargon. Too many choices. Long video. (Admittedly, most of my posts on this site would score poorly when it comes to making them scannable.)
3. Chop, chop, chop
It’s important to stop when enough is enough. Know the only thing you want to say and say it right in the beginning. And after you have written that important email or document, just “go back and kill at least half the words. It winds up sharper every time.” 2
“We hide our insecurity in additional words,” says Ross, CEO of a global communications giant. “Your message is lost, your sincerity is in question—and your competency gives me a pause, because you’re all over the place.”
Smart Brevity lists four bullet points in helping you shorten the length of an article, mailer, email, memo, or simply any good piece of writing. As follows:
- Stop using too many words in a headline or subject line.
- Limit yourself to 6 words, tops.
- Stop being funny. Or ironic. Or cryptic. It’s confusing, not clever.
- Stop using fancy SAT words or business-speak.
Mulla Nasrudin began undressing in the examination hall when the supervisor ran to him, quite alarmed.
“What on earth do you think you are doing?”
“It says right here,” Mulla said, pointing at the question paper. “Answer in brief.”
“It’s brief not briefs!” the examiner chided him. “Know the difference.”
Mulla paused for a moment, as if in deep thought, and said, “Aah, I see… so you want me to cut my briefs in half and make it into a brief.”
So it goes for writing too. Short doesn’t mean shallow. Know the difference. Keeping something brief requires thought, competence, effort, focus and diligence. As Mark Twain would say, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Peel, chop, deseed, toss, garnish, serve. Imagine if in the featured video of this post, all those veggies weren’t chopped. Would the dish be the same? Chop your sentences. Use only what’s absolutely required, and you can’t go wrong.
I hope I haven’t taken more words than necessary to make the point: less is more.
Yes, less is more.
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