The first time I heard the phrase, “Be brief, be bold, be gone,” I laughed out loud. It was that delicious.
And if you’re reading this, I image that you also would prefer to communicate clearly, concisely, and at an effective length.
When you’re speaking, using my Instant Speech format takes care of that for you.
But what about when you’re writing? How can you curb the number of words you use, with the goal of grabbing and holding your readers’ attention?
Brevity Can Power Your Writing, Too
That’s the problem that Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, co-Founders of the news site Axios, tackle in their new book, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less.
Like the Instant Speech format, their approach starts with identifying the most important thing you have to say. (This is both an intuitive and a subtly difficult task; I wrote ten pages on it for my book Speak Like Yourself…No, Really! Follow Your Strengths and Skills to Great Public Speaking.)
But that key message (in Smart Brevity’s newspaper lingo, the “lede”) isn’t the first thing you write. Instead, they recommend that you:
- Start with a “teaser” (what I call an “attention grabber”). Their example is “Your CEO has no lunch buddy.”
- Then unveil your key message/most important statement/lede; for example, “Offices are opening up, but only the executives want to go in to work.”
- Now write a sentence explaining why this matters to your readers.
- Give a few high-level “supporting points” (my term) that make your case; and finally,
- Offer the option of going deeper into this topic, if readers want to.
This Isn’t How It’s Usually Done
Three months ago, the Washington Post ran an article titled “5 things to know about protein.”
Let’s see how close it does (or doesn’t) match the suggestions in Smart Brevity)_
Teaser: It doesn’t have one. Something like, “Worried about protein? You don’t need to be!” would have served that function.
Key Message/Lede: Yes! It read, “Despite the hype on social media, most people can get adequate protein without adding whey shakes and massive servings of meat to their plates.”
(Notice how well that sums up the entire article. If I don’t take time to read the whole thing, I’ll at least have gotten their main point.)
Why This Matters: The Washington Post doesn’t have this sentence. Four well-written paragraphs tell us why this topic is in the public eye, but not why it matters particularly to us.
Supporting Points: Yes! Because this is a newspaper article and not a newsletter, the points are listed to the right of the main column, but that’s fine. They are:
- Active people need more protein than couch potatoes
- You can overdo the protein thing
- You don’t need that whey shake
- Extra protein probably won’t help you lose weight
- Protein after a workout and before bed may have benefits
I would argue that #2 (“You can overdo the protein thing”) is actually Why It Matters, but that’s not a deal breaker.
The Option of Digging Deeper: Not an option in this case, because each topic is discussed at length under its numbered heading. But extra points to the Post for hyperlinking each heading to the right discussion, so that you can easily jump ahead if you want to.
So while this article wasn’t trying to use the Smart Brevity technique, it still got at least half-way there. Way to go, Washington Post!
Brevity Takes a Bit More Thought, but It’s Worth the Effort
Whether you use the Instant Speech format, the Smart Brevity model, both, or neither, it’s worth a little effort to be more concise.
Because in today’s hyper-everything world, the less you say (or write), the more people will hear.
And that, more than anything, is worth a few minutes of your time.