Cut to the chase

I remember confiding in an old mentor, years ago, when I was a young creative just beginning to speak up in client meetings. “I get too nervous,” I told her one day after a presentation. “I overthink things, I try to sound intelligent, and then I get flustered, lose my train of thought and trail off without making a coherent point.”

“Use less words,” she said. “There’ll be less chance of screwing up.” She said this plainly, as though it were the first rule of advertising.

Actually, it’s the first rule of communication in general. Of the 13 key takeaways in Stephen King’s 1999 memoir On Writing, 3 of them are directly related to brevity:

  • Remove everything that isn’t part of the story
  • Don’t dress up your vocabulary
  • Second draft = first draft – 10%

He’s referring to creative writing, sure, but if you subscribe to the idea that brands are stories (and I do), you’ll see the symmetry. In the most basic sense, whether the medium is a novel or a headline or a user experience, our job is to transport an idea or emotion into another person’s mind. Our goal is to dazzle them, to inspire them, to sear a memorable image into their consciousness. And the shorter, simpler and more concise the message, well, the less chance there is of screwing up.

We all have a natural temptation to take the scenic route when arriving at a point, or “dress things up”, as King states above. Usually I do this when I don’t fully understand what I’m saying, or when I’m trying to win someone over with charming language because my story is thin. But perhaps the most common culprit in overdressing the message is familiarity. The story makes sense to me because it’s fully baked inside my head. I can meander or go off on tangents and I have no problem following along because I already know exactly where I’m going. The person on the other end of my communication line doesn’t know me. They don’t know what’s in my head (thankfully). I have to assume they’re a stranger that I’m stopping cold on the street, and I have 10 seconds to sell them my idea.

As a writer, my reference point is copy, but it’s not hard to see how the principle translates to other mediums (user experience jumps immediately to mind). Clarity and simplicity are often seen as bland, or basic. And sometimes, yes, they are. But if your story (or website or video or value prop) is compelling then brevity and simplicity will lay bare its genius. It will be refreshing and bold and easy to digest. It will remain whole as it gets transported from your mind into that of a complete stranger.

I’ll heed my own advice and end with another simple rule, this one an old Hollywood adage: 25 words or less. You’ve got my attention for that much time. After that, I’m checking my phone.