Make Your Point and Get Out of the Way

No one likes their time wasted. It’s a universal annoyance. So some advice applicable to everything you do: Make your point and get out of the way.

Be brief. Use as few words as possible to say what you need, and everyone will appreciate it.

Mark Twain said kids provide the most interesting information, “for they tell all they know and then they stop.” Adults lose this skill, developing a false belief in other people’s desire for tangents and details.

Good communication is the ability to say the most stuff in the fewest words. Those receiving information skim, skip, and mind wander far more often than they ask for more. Most points – even complex ones – don’t require endless explanation. Length often reflects a writer’s desire to convey effort, but effort isn’t something readers want. Substance, is. Stephen King explains in his book On Writing:

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit … I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit.

What a useful template for all communication.

There’s data behind this idea. The average online reader makes it no more than 50% of the way through an article. Books are no better. A mathematician used Kindle ebook data to show that a 60% completion rate is about as good as it gets for books. Less than 20% is common, even for best-sellers. It’s the purest signal that the author lost track of the childhood wisdom Twain recognized.

My colleague Sophie says you can often learn more about a company from its website than its investor pitch deck. CEOs know a website has to deliver a quick summary of a product’s value, but a pitch deck is seen as permission to unleash a word salad.

A helpful tactic is to view all communication through the structure of a product’s website: To the point, frugal with the fluff. I have seen 100-page investment brochures convey half as much information as this one:

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Being brief doesn’t necessarily mean being short. Relevance is the key. There are tome-length books that don’t waste a word. Every paragraph adds value.

It helps, after writing every sentence, to ask “Would the reader still get my point if I deleted that line?” Not “Does that sentence make sense?” Millions of unnecessary sentences make sense. Treating words like they cost you something is the right mindset. A writer once recommended imagining someone pays you $100 for every word you remove from your draft. Another quipped: “Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” Poor communicators ramble. Good communicators leave out unnecessary details. Great communicators treat words as the scarcest commodity.

Jon Stewart once criticized the inanity of some of CNBC’s commentary, to which Jim Cramer responded: “Look, we’ve got 17 hours of live TV a day to do.”

Stewart rebutted: “Maybe you can cut down on that?”

A wonderful phrase to remember before every word.


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