In Praise of Brevity


This post had better be short.

A British literature festival on May 16th celebrating the art of ultra-short stories (Flash Fiction items with not more than 150 words), reminds us that as the overall volume of communication grows, the individual dose is shrinking fast.

Time to dig out that spare Ernest Hemingway prose style. His shortest story was just six words long:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Thanks to Twitter, it’s 140 characters, not 150 words, that are now the default attention span.

Some smart Australians have applied brevity principles to company messaging and corporate communications. They wrote a book called Dealing with the Tough Stuff.  It says it’s time for every CEO to learn how to strip back his message to the basic  irreducible core.

Then let’s go the whole way and deliver vision strategy and purpose — all in less than 140 characters. Think of the billions of meeting-hours saved! Think of the consultant layoffs!

I always say to corporate trainees that what you can’t write on the back of a bus ticket isn’t worth memorizing. But they don’t do bus tickets any more, so 140 characters is OK. I guess.

That doesn’t give you room for a “sound bite.” Barely even a bon mot.

Oscar Wilde’s “Art is what you can get away with” makes the cut. So does Mark Twain’s “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Obama’s “Yes we can” can, or once could. JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” does it in style.

If they could only have stuck with it, Google’s “Don’t be evil” was a slam dunk.  Zuckerberg easily makes the 140 character cut. “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

But most corporate statements go way over the saggy muffin-top. Fresh from squandering $2billion on trading losses, the JPMorgan Chase looks flabby:

“We want to be the best financial services company in the world. Because of our great heritage and excellent platform, we believe this is within our reach.”

If fiction is getting shorter, then so too should corporate stories. Enough of this ‘café americano’ business of adding water to a basic expresso.  Out with solutions, empowering, transformational, paradigms. We don’t trust long words with Latin roots.

The basic principle is that waffle won’t stick. Pundits and neuroscientists tell us that only small pieces are retained in memory. In their book, Made to Stick  the Heath brothers laid the foundation to a duct tape empire based on brevity.

Some time back I wrote a post about how surprisingly short all the greatest speeches were. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address only had 270 words.  Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” was 1,660 words. The King’s Speech was a 90 minute movie. The actual speech? Just 5 minutes.

Crunch time: do we walk the talk at www.storyfountain.com, when it comes to brevity? Can we make shorter short stories? Our business offers to bring company stories to life, using “flash storytelling” principles. Do we promise that briefly enough?

“Story fountain helps to create, tell and deliver your corporate stories in ways that everyone can understand.”  That’s 113 characters.

Shakespeare, of course, nailed the whole subject in 87 characters less: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

That’s it.

©Richard House

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