The State of Brevity Today

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

William Strunk, Jr.

We’ve long known that brevity is power. Tight, clear writing is always strong.

Now, with more and more of today’s news stories reaching consumers through video, that brevity must translate into focused sound bites.

Years ago, television news reports included much longer clips than today. Now, with our ever-shrinking attention spans, clips in videos are quick.

In a network television news report, clips are rarely longer than 8-10 seconds. For sit-down television interviews and most radio hits, we tell those we train that answers should be about 45 seconds long.

Podcasts are often the exception to that rule — subjects are allowed to expand upon ideas on a platform that lasts up to an hour.

Lingua franca

In this era of Twitter, BuzzFeed and Axios, brevity is lingua franca. In fact, many were outraged when Twitter doubled its allowance to 280 characters, with critics saying the leniency would only induce “blathering.”

I, too, am a fan of getting to the essence of a subject quickly. As a journalist for years and now a podcast producer, what pulls me in is someone who can get to the core of a great story in a minute.

Call me rude, but I have literally shut down a podcast interview in its tracks on more than one occasion. Taking advantage of the fact that my podcast is pre-recorded, I will tell my guests when I know they are capable of better, and I ask them to start again. Often, experts shine in the pre-interview, and then babble with bland language once the little red light goes on.

The audience wants be illuminated. Even the most complex ideas have a relatable analogy which can lead to an “a-ha moment” for the listener.

The rules of the elevator pitch still apply: anyone with passion and focus can explain a complicated topic by the time the elevator door opens.

We teach people how to flag strong facts, create metaphors and craft examples. Clarity and simplicity take a lot of prep work.

Too many speakers guilty of tl-dr

“Tl-dr” was born out of our urgency to consume information in short order. People will share an article on social media if it looks interesting, but then sometimes admit “tl-dr,” meaning “too long, didn’t read.”

“Tl-dw” happens in broadcast media, too, I bet. I’ve clicked on interesting links only to find a 17-minute video. Hmm. This woman being interviewed sounds smart. And this is an important topic, but I don’t have time to listen to this whole thing. Click. Off.

So, the question is, how do we, as communicators, react to tl-dr? Our message is definitely still relevant — but are we evolving with the media’s new fast pace?

Lately, I have been training scholars at think tanks on how to better communicate their work. They are credible, and the quality of opinion is excellent. But if a tree falls in a forest, and instead of slamming immediately to the ground, it leans, creaks, sways, shifts, creeps slowly, lower and lower…  

In other words, if a point is not heard because it was not delivered in a memorable way, well, it might fall on deaf ears. People will tune out.

Don’t ‘dumb down’

Dumbing something down implies that the listeners aren’t able to understand what you have to say. That’s simply not true. They’re as smart as ever — but their expectations have evolved with the media.

Like it or not, news consumption has changed. Viewers and readers want content worthy of their attention and trust. They have itchy click fingers. It’s up to us to hone a message strong enough to keep a viewer interested.

Are we ready to take the time needed to be brief?