Get short to standout in a cyberstorm
We now live in a digital democracy, thanks to the internet everyone has the possibility to get their message heard by the rest of the world. Paradoxically most messages have become digital noise which we just ignore. To cut through this noise your message has to be short to drive home your point.
With Twitter, Facebook and SMS there is a practical limit on the amount of information which can sent. Twitter used to have a limit of 140 characters, for all intents and purposes this limit still exists. Before we read a book or an article the first thing we do is read the title. A title is an example of a short writing, it gives the person a basic idea what the article is about and then provokes the user to take further action.
Short messages require symbolism and metaphor to decrease then number of words required to convey the message. In one of my previous posts I covered framing and reframing metaphors. The best way to learn about short messages is to study examples of other short messages. One of the most famous examples of a short message is Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It is full of metaphor and symbolism. Lets examine the first paragraph in the speech.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Lincoln could have said.
87 years ago our fathers came to North America and created a new nation, with a constitution with the premise that all men are equal.
But he didn’t, literally my version states the same thing as Lincoln but it doesn’t give the same mood. Lets try and examine why.
Four score and seven years ago is a biblical way of referring to numbers, this right away sets the mood that it is an important announcement. The rest of the sentence gives the image that these men who created the constitution where guided by a divine force. It then ends with the phrase “all men are equal”. This single paragraph with a single sentence carries a lot of information, but most of it is unspoken.
I will digress for a moment to show the importance of context and understanding your audience. In the following short story, is the man behaving normally ?
A man goes to a cemetery, he approaches a gravestone and then says a few words. But you are too far away to hear his words. The man then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a rubber chicken. He then throws it onto the grave and starts jumping up and down to it. While he is doing that he starts to laugh hysterically.
Most people would probably say it is abnormal behavior. The story takes on a different perspective if we find out the man in the grave was a clown. The man visiting the grave was a good friend of his and also is a clown. One of his dead friends clown acts involved pulling out a rubber chicken and throwing it on the ground. Knowing these facts the man’s behavior changes from appearing abnormal to normal.
There are many stories about when Lincoln was campaigning for President. Back in Lincoln’s day, when a politician campaigned they traveled by train. While on the campaign trail, Lincoln’s train stopped, he then found out the tracks ahead where being repaired. Being a smart politician he saw this is a chance to do some campaigning with the railway repair workers.
He then started talking to the workers, and said he understood the plight of the working man. Right away some of the workers started to ridicule him, “what do you know about the working man ?” mocked one gruff worker who was leaning on a sledge hammer. Lincoln calmly said “hand me your hammer, and hand me a spike”. He then effortlessly lifted the huge hammer and then with a single blow drove the spike all the way into a railway tie. This was a tremendous show of physical strength and skill. The rail workers where speechless, the next question was how did he learn how to do this ? He then explained in his youth he had worked as a railway worker.
Lincoln knew his audience, a demonstration like that impressed railway men because they knew the physical strength and skill it took. Also they where hard gruff men where actions count a lot more then words. If he was in a gentleman’s club and asked what does he know about the working man, the demonstration would have been worthless.
The stories of Lincoln doing these types of things soon traveled from worker to worker. I was there, I saw him drive the spike in with one blow. Lincoln with a 15 second demonstration achieved what we now call going viral.
The human brain has a tendency to fill in empty gaps that are missing in patterns. This occurs with both words and pictures. A picture is comprised of lines, but your brain fills in the missing parts between lines. This then fools your brain into thinking it is seeing a tree, a horse etc.
As I showed in my last post, each single word will create am image within your brain. But when you combine words together there are like gaps between them. How a person’s brain fills them in the gaps between the words depends largely on their culture and perspective. If Lincoln had given the same speech to Hindus in India the speech wouldn’t have made any sense.
The art is trying to use the least amount of words to create an image and emotional connection with your audience. In Lincoln’s day most Americans where Christians and where familiar with Bible, the four score and seven right away creates an emotional connection with his audience. He then is indirectly saying that the current war they are fighting right now is similar to the war your grandfathers or great grandfathers fought 87 years earlier. And the war is about equality and liberty, Lincoln probably used the word liberty instead of freedom because it has a harder sound to it. Give me liberty or give me death.
The amazing thing is Lincoln hasn’t said any of the above, he has only implied it, he leaves the rest to the reader to fill in. This is the difficult part, you have to give your reader the minimum amount to fill in the details, but if you give him too little then he might not create the picture you desire.
How the sentence is laid out is extremely important. Lets examine the statement made my OJ Simpson’s lawyer.
If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit
The first thing you notice is that the sentence has a rhythm to it and it rhymes. This means it is will be remembered by the person and it sticks out. Also it doesn’t mention anything about a glove, there is not need to, since this is implied by context. It also leaves out all unnecessary information, like maybe the glove shrank because it was covered with blood or maybe OJ’s hands where swollen because he didn’t take his arthritis medicine.
The sentence can be turned around to
You must acquit, if it doesn’t fit.
This new sentence means exactly the same thing, but it isn’t as powerful. The goal of OJ’s lawyer is to get him acquitted. The last word in the sentence should be the action or emotion you want to leave your reader with. He doesn’t want his client to be fitted. He also used the word acquit as opposed to “not guilty”. The reason being if a negative is used in front of a word, the human brain has a tendency to doubt the statement and the word “guilty” will stick in the juries head.
The best way to learn these techniques is to take apart the sentences of other writers and see what they are doing.
The best way to learn how to use these techniques is by practicing either with your own writing to others. Example someone wrote this in a post.
There are many situations where the more words you use, and the more detailed you are, the more dilute your point may seem. It’s important to instead guild the context of a conversation or take advantage of something well understood mutually. When talking to someone be expressive through understanding and you will seem more witty.
When I saw the word dilute, the metaphor of whiskey came to mind. So I right away rewrote the above idea with
An idea is like a good whiskey, it should be drunk straight, adding water to the whiskey ruins its essence.
This is shorter but still a little wordy, maybe
An idea is like whiskey, best drunk straight, don’t ruin the idea with extra words.
An idea like whiskey should be served straight, extra words ruin it.
The analogy of comparing whiskey to ideas assumes you audience likes whiskey and is familiar with it. Possibly there are other analogies or metaphors which could be used.
There are countless places to use these techniques, from social media like Twitter or Facebook to sending SMS. It also is extremely useful for presenting new ideas to people, script writers will often use this technique when selling their ideas to producers. The producer is a busy person, he wants to have am idea what the movie or TV show is about in as few words as possible. Startrek was initially described as a Western which takes place in outer space. The movie Aliens was described as Jaws in outer space.
The ideas for the post mainly came from these two books,
Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little and
How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times. The book Microstyleexamines short writing from a linguistic perspective, as in how the information is being conveyed. It gives many examples of short writing and headlines. The other book How to Write Short. talks about writing more from a writers perspective. The author gives uses more of a rules perspective. I find both perspectives seem to complement each other.
Also be aware of metaphor and analogy, this is the key of short writing, this is how you build your scene and connect with your audience emotionally. Listen to the lyrics of songs for example. In a noisy world it is important to make your message a short as possible to make it stand out.
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