Monday, January 9, 2012

Brevity: The Soul of Business Writing?

There is a compelling case for concise business writing.

Whether it’s Twitter (where one is forced to be succinct at 140 characters),  the annual composing and sending of trillions of cryptic text messages, or the advent of the “one sentence press release” -- folks are losing patience with  the blah blah blah...
Even email messages of over 50 words or so cause a recipient’s eyes to glaze over.
Blast from the Past
My fellow Liberal Arts majors might recall Strunk’s “Elements of Style"-- 
Dating from 1918, William Strunk puts it like this:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.   William Strunk Jr.
 in Elements of Style
No Value in Verbosity
Even in the face of these wise words, and the exponential growth of Twitter, business writing is still as long-winded and verbose as ever.
Everybody loses with verbosity.  Messages are lost.  Readers lose meaning. Marketers lose audiences.  

Business communicators, and certainly marketers, must cultivate the art of being concise.
Going Mobile
It’s likely that patience with overly wordy text will continue to diminish.
A recent study by Norman/Nielsen group reveals that impatience with overly-long business messaging is growing with the rise in use of mobile devices and tablets.
“Mobile users are in a hurry and get visibly angry at verbose messages that waste their time. Also, it's twice as hard to understand content on small mobile devices as it is on bigger desktop screens, making wordy content even more despised.”
It is hard work to shape complex ideas and condense them down to clear insights. It’s much easier to ramble, relying on filler text and meaningless words.
I grapple with these same issues myself when developing marketing content for clients.
5 Keys to Being Concise
In the spirit of the New Year, here’s a simple check-list for more pithy and concise communication:
1) Write. Rest. Return.  Write your text.  Let it rest overnight. Review with a fresh eye and start cutting .  And I mean chop! Someone once said (it might have been me) that a final draft should lose 40% of content from the first draft.  (I try to take this approach with client work as much as possible.  Will resolve to do better in 2012!)

2) A picture is worth 1000 words. Let images, charts and graphics tell the story in business writing as much as possible. 

3) Stay active. Avoid passive voice when writing.  Stick to active voice for a more immediate impact.

4) Keep it simple. Strive for simplicity and clarity. Make every word count. 

5) Forget the fluff.  Avoid over-used and cliché ridden terms. Marketing-speak buzzwords do not help with meaning. 

I’m tempted to say more, but won’t since after all, this post isn't that concise, is it?! 

Let us go forth and be brief!

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