Friday, June 8, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Short Sentences Beget Longer Attention Spans

This week's Friday Fundamentals entry is very simple:  Writers, keep your sentence length short.  Like much good advice, though, it's easier to say than put into practice.  Here we present ways, and reasons, to boost sentence brevity.

In the past decade, texting has become the main form of social interaction for a huge number of people.  Technology has spawned  new rules of behavior:
1)  Avoid casual conversation and eye contact with others in immediate proximity.
2) Choose instead to engage in distance-talking to disembodied people via a small screen in your hand.

It's old school to chat with strangers while waiting for the elevator.  People whip out their cell phones instead.  In fact, the very term cell phone seems archaic.   A friend recently mentioned to me that, after two months of dating, she and her boyfriend had had their first phone conversation the previous night.  Before that, their distance communication had all been via text.

While there are many implications for civilization embedded in this phenomenon -- some of them scary! -- I want to concentrate right now on one of the characteristics of the texting form of communication:  short sentences.

You can't go on and on with your thumbs.  It's essential to edit.  And this, I believe, is an aspect of texting that makes it so attractive.

Most people don't have the energy or devotion necessary to decode long strings of eloquence.   They are in the middle of life.  Your message has to coexist with a multitude of other input that they are simultaneously sorting.  So to keep their attention, keep each sentence simple, brief, and  focused. Sentence length is the one pivotal factor in keeping an average audience's attention.

Short sentences require discipline.  As Frank Luntz says in his book, Words That Work, "This is less about self-restraint than it is a matter of finding exactly the right piece of the language puzzle to fit the precise space you're trying to fill."

So it's work to keep sentences short and pithy.  And that's as it should be.  Because in essence, you are taking on the work of decoding, rather than forcing your audience to do it.  The very labor that you engage in to tighten your words is the labor they shy away from when confronted with convoluted clauses and stretched out sequences of thought.  Your editing buys you engagement.  So do it.

Most people go long because they have a lot to say, and once they have their audience cornered, they go at it full bore because they want to unload.  But that's exactly the way to lose an audience.

Staring at a huge block of solid text is off-putting to people.  So is reading a sentence that requires you to keep score on a number of fronts, or lose the thread of thought.  You know which sentence that is.  It's the one you have to go back and read again because, by the time you get to its last word, you've forgotten what its first phrase was trying to say.  Those sentences are engagement-killers.  They build annoyance and destroy good will.

So don't get fancy. The right way to say something is, in Goldilocks parlance, neither too long or too short, but "just right."   If you need to say something complex, break it down into separate thought elements, and house each element in a sentence of its own.  Build your bright ideas with solid bricks of stand-alone concepts.  Organize them architecturally.  Your end punctuation marks are like sturdy columns that support the vaulted ceiling of your lofty subject matter.  If you don't have enough of them, your roof of rhetoric will collapse.

Don't make the mistake that your audience is following your trail of lyrical language when they have long since whipped out their cell phones and started texting their friends. Learn from the competition.  Want to be heard?  Tell your tale like a texter.  

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