This week’s article is about ‘Keeping It Brief’ so it will be a short one – be sharp and pay attention!
It was some time ago, when I first heard the short story – On Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn. Last week on a marketing webcast I again heard an expert referencing the same tiny tale. So, are these Terribly Tiny Tales a new phenomenon?
First let me debunk the myth that ‘being brief’ has come into fashion lately, especially after the advent of social media. Though there is a debate about its source, the above story is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who was born in 1899. Don’t take my word for it. I quote from a website, which was investigating the origin of this story.
“An article on similar short-short stories appeared as early as 1917 by William R. Kane, and the story title that Kane suggested was “Little Shoes, Never Worn.” In 1921, newspaper columnist Roy K. Moulton pointed out that a classified, “Baby carriage for sale, never used,” embodied the plot of a story.”
Communication professionals of my vintage will recall an oft used phrase, ‘Less is more’, which has its origin in architecture and design. We used it to impress upon spokespersons to keep it short and not get into a long-winded monologue, while addressing the media. During media trainings, I would tell them that attention spans are getting shorter, the average TV byte is few seconds long and stories last for two minutes. Keeping it short, precise and to the point will help deliver the key message.
Now that it’s established that being brief is not a new phenomenon, here are four tips that I use to keep it succinct.
- Central Idea: Before one starts communicating, one should be clear about the central idea or the key message that one wants to share. More often than not, long winded and muddled up communication is due to lack of clarity about the core message. This is true for all forms of communication such as media interviews, keynotes, employee communication, social media posts and business presentations.
- Kill your darlings: Once you have clarity on the central idea, it is important to cull all irrelevant information from the story or message. Remove everything that does not add to the central idea of your story. In the first paragraph I could have added that I was an observer in a communications skills workshop when I first heard of the shortest six-word story. Another irrelevant detail would be that I have also read a very interesting compilation called “Terribly Tiny Tales”. However, none of it would add to the central theme that the idea of brevity is not new.
- Short sentences: One should try and use short sentences both in written and oral communication. It is ideal if you can convey the central idea in 30 words or less. E.g., if you are giving a TV interview and can convey the central idea in 30 words, then you can communicate your message in less than 30 seconds. Hopefully the channel will give you more airtime than that!
- Simple language: Avoid use of technical terms, complicated words, corporate jargon or acronyms (without expanding them). People feel that unless they use complex and difficult words the message would not sound professional or be worthy of being sent by a CEO. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having worked with several CEOs, I can say it with confidence that the messages, which resonate most with the stakeholders are the ones where simple language is used.
An easy way to remember the above four points is by using the acronym KISS – Kill Your Darlings, Central Idea, Short Sentences and Simple Language.
Please note: None of the sentences used in the above article have more than 30 words. I have used simple language and killed my darlings to communicate the central idea: Keep it brief!