I was at the Thames Valley Innovation Conference. We’d already had a long morning of “death by PowerPants”; a succession of grey men in dark suits talking about “innovation” but completely failing to do anything innovative other than the odd feeble PowerPants animation (“oh look, shiny thing moving, ooooh”).
Then Harry Hobson and Andy Reid of ?WhatIf! stood up.
They bounced around the stage like a couple of Duracell bunnies, got the audience on their feet (reluctantly) and engaged, for the first time that day. Woohah, they’ve got our attention!
Then Andy held up a copy of “Blue Ocean Strategy” (Kim and Mauborgne); “anyone read this?”. I, and a few other delegates, put our hands up. “Well”, he continued, dropping the book and holding up just the dust jacket “you needn’t have bothered, it’s all here”.
Damn it. He’s right! How dare Kim and Mouborgne steal my time by selling me a useful analogy and then making me read the whole book just to discover there was nothing else of use inside the dust jacket?
Charlie Chaplin may have said that “words are cheap”, but the truth is that lots of words are cheap, a few words are very, very precious. I mean think about it, do you pay any more for a 250,000 word epic than a 40,000 word novelette? No!
It was the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (not Mark Twain) who wrote “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter” and boy, was that perceptive.
There is a strong tradition of practicing and celebrating the art of saying a lot in very few words. In Japan they have the Haiku (in English we usually say it is limited to 17 syllables), in the UK we have the mini saga (a short story in exactly 50 words). If you have ever tried to craft one of these then you will know that the time it takes to write each word appears inversely proportional to the number of words you have to write.
Compare that to the shaggy dog story or the Tale of a Thousand Nights where additional words, blind alleys and extraneous detail are positively encouraged.
Well we’ve now got the modern day equivalents in marketing; the Tweet and the AdWord. Just how do you get an idea across in 140 or 95 characters respectively? It is really tough.
I recently went through the process with a client, and we struggled for ages. Strangely, despite the paucity of characters available, we kept repeating words.
If you think that is tough you could try the form created by Earnest Hemingway in the 1920s when he bet ten dollars that he could write a complete story in six words. “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” won the bet. The six word auto-biography is now a popular form and you can even read a collection of them in “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure”.
So let’s practice the art of saying a lot in just a few words.
Less is more.