Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: The Biggest Botch of All: Going Too Long

Welcome to another post in our series of Friday Fundamentals, where we present some very basic and fail-safe ways to improve your communications skill.  This time we're expounding (or actually trying not to expound) on one of the simplest, yet hardest, skills of all: brevity.

No matter what you're trying to communicate, it's a safe bet that you're more in love with your topic than your audience is.  And though that might be good in some respects, it also brings some risk.

Your deep affinity for the topic may make it difficult for you to understand that others don't share your passion.   They are nearly always less interested in your topic than you are; therefore they are significantly less motivated to hear you out than you think they are.  If you assume otherwise, you automatically increase the danger of audience detachment, meaning that they will either tune you out, or turn you off.  We live, after all, in the age of the channel surfer.  So to make sure your message hits its mark, the basic rule is:

Keep it brief!  Stop talking before they stop listening.

Marketing guru Seth Godin calls this the Permission Marketing principle.  Your audience is very gracious to give you permission to enter their attention-span space.  Don't run the risk of outstaying your welcome.

I have to share with you quite personally that this is a big challenge of mine.  I am so in love with words, ideas, and communication itself that I carry within me the universal danger of overdoing every message I send.  Only by recognizing this propensity and managing it have I been able to grow as a writer.  It's also why I've become a sought-after editor.

Here's the story of how I learned this lesson the hard way.  I used to write a monthly company newsletter.  When I sent each draft out for review, the Chief Operations Officer would routinely fax me his "minor revisions" -- a hard copy covered with black pencil marks that crossed out whole sections of text on every page.  At the bottom he would scribble: "Less is more!"

I resisted at first, but eventually I got it.  He was not failing to appreciate my awesome writing; he was merely helping me keep readers from bailing.  I started to try for lean instead of long.  The corrections diminished, and my writing quality improved immeasurably.  When that COO left for greener pastures, I sent him a card to thank him for his positive impact on my career -- blanketing it with flowery crossed-out prose in homage to his editorial style.  (He loved it!)

To this day, when I review my own material, I prod myself to "think like Bob" and consider what my audience needs to see -- as opposed to what I want to say.  

I still might get it wrong, but I try not to be too long.

As another communications hero of mine, Frank Luntz, puts it in his excellent book Words That Work:

"Be as brief as possible.  
Never use a sentence when a phrase will do, 
and never use four words when three can say just as much."

Here's my challenge.  Take another look at some of your latest messaging. This time, have your Bob pencil in hand.  What could you have said more simply and succinctly?

In the spirit of this topic, I'm ending now.  So remember, good communicators:

To tell it well, tell it briefly!

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