The Beauty of Brevity

Stack of binders on top of each other, full of printed papers. No brevity here.

“In every long lecture there is a short lecture trying to get out.” – Anonymous

If you’ve ever bought a home, you’ve no doubt been overwhelmed by the deluge of documents begging to be signed. Often on legal-size paper, the stack of documents can be measured with a ruler! Who reads all that stuff?

I got a lot of looks from the folks handling the closing when I took time to speed read all the papers I was initializing or signing. Whether I read it or not, once I signed, I was responsible so better have at least some clue as to what was in there! None of that was written to be brief or easy to understand!

The new tax bill that President Trump just signed into law is also quite hefty at 429 pages — longer than most novels. And in recent years, nothing competes with the verboseness of the Affordable Healthcare Act weighing in at over 11,000 pages!

But consider these timeless documents and speeches that truly qualify as being brief:

  • The 10 Commandments (There are just 10 of them!)
  • The Lord’s Prayer – 66 words
  • The Declaration of Independence – Less than 3 pages
  • The Pledge of Allegiance – 31 words
  • The Gettysburg Address – 272 words (a little over half-a-page)

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d better be brief! So, here are three strong reasons to be brief:

  1. Brevity makes things easier to grasp and remember (like those five bulleted examples above).
  2. People are more likely to read or listen to something brief.
  3. Brevity forces the writer/speaker to be succinct and economical with their words.

How to cultivate brevity in your writing and speaking

When writing or preparing a talk, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. How can I say this more simply? When possible, avoid the passive voice, and use your words economically. (If I had written the first phrase of that sentence in the passive voice, it would look like this: “When possible, the passive voice should be avoided.”) Also, consider setting a goal not to exceed a certain length.
  2. How can I say this more clearly? Use words that most people will understand. Don’t repeat yourself; say it clearly the first time. When in doubt, read it aloud. If you stumble through it, chances are you need to find a way to say it more clearly.
  3. What “fluff” can I eliminate? After writing, read through your work through the eyes of someone who has never read it. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs and adjectives and anything else that isn’t vital to get your meaning across.

Do this and you’re most of the way there!

Now let’s apply it:

Brevity and emails

One idea/issue per email. Use as few words as possible. Chances are the recipient won’t read more than the first few lines anyway.

Brevity and websites

Short sentences and short paragraphs help readability on screen.

Keep in mind that 60+% of your website visitors are visiting your site on a mobile phone. On a small screen a long paragraph will fill the entire screen. Visual overload means people move on.

Effective SEO requires a certain length to content, often around 300 words. It doesn’t require “War and Peace”.

Keep pages focused. Don’t overwhelm visitors with lots of options and buttons. Provide a few, relevant options. Make calls to action clear and engaging.

Anything else can be placed in the footer where visitors will naturally go if they don’t find the desired content on the page.

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In the end, brevity is about being clear and concise: You want to say all that is needed and no more. But you do need to say what’s needed.

Brevity isn’t necessarily easy. Easy is to just ramble on and let the reader figure it out. Except they probably won’t. Then it’s back on you.

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” – Proverbs 25:11

Exercise:
Review an email you sent last week.
Review a page on your website.
For each, look for:
Is the main point clear?
Do I (the reader) get the information I need to make a decision/take the next step?
Is there a logical next step presented?
Could this be said with fewer words?

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