The art of writing very little

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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.

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13 Responses to The art of writing very little

  1. Your article reminds me of the (possibly) anecdotal story about Oscar Wilde’s telegram to his publisher asking about the sales of his new book.

    Wilde’s telegram read, simply “?”

    His publisher, with equal brevity, responded “!”

  2. A truely useful analogy and an awesome novel are both useful… to different ends. PowerRants by PowerPants seem endless; are never truely useful.

  3. Carl says:

    Less is certainly more. A little often is also superior to lots infrequently!

    • Chris says:

      Sure thing Carl, I missed the point that drip feed gets the message across far better and far more permanently than an Tsunami of words.

  4. Chris says:

    I wrote this post after a client and I had wrestled over the exact wording of an AdWords campaign.
    Then I started to read “Made to Stick”. Chapter 1 is very much about this, so if you want to read some more I’d point you there.

  5. Ann says:

    Hi Chris

    Found the less is more most interesting. It is often challenging for people to make communication more accessible, as it requires them to think in a different way! What are you trying to say? Is it actually saying that? What is essential in conveying this message? We ran sessions earlier this month looking at use of colour, simple graphics and avoiding distractive detail of any kind. We then looked at how the context adds to the meaning….. some very interesting results! Some people were able to do this very effectively while other found it incredibly challenging. They could all see how very powerful it was when done well but not an easy process. Staff went away exhausted but elated…….mind you, so did I!

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Ann, interesting comment. As I read it I was reminded about what children’s school books look like: full of distraction. Is that helpful or not?

  6. Ann says:

    It depends on the purpose doesn’t it? Where’s Wally for example was designed to be packed with detail and the more you looked the more there was to see. Learning to pick out what is relevant is also a key skill…..on the other hand a simple image and the right word or two can be very powerful in conveying a message.

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