Get to the Point

POSTED: Jul. 19, 2016

In the movie The Point! (one of my favorites) a boy named Oblio was the only round-headed person in the Pointed Village. By village law everyone and everything must have a point, so Oblio was banished from his home to The Pointless Forest. He met many odd characters in the forest, notably The Pointed Man. Oblio thought it odd that The Pointless Forest was home to a man who was constantly pointing. When asked about this conundrum, The Pointed Man explained "A point in every direction is the same as no point at all.”

In almost all business writing and presentations, you are trying to make a point. You hope to communicate something you want your audience to know, do or feel. Many business communicators, unfortunately, don’t do a very good job of making their point. The primary problem is that they bury their point in too many words, making it difficult for their audience to find or recognize it.

Smaller Is Better

Your readers, like you, are deluged with information and operate in a constant state of partial attention. Many of them are multi-taskers (despite scientific evidence that multi-tasking isn’t an efficient strategy), so your messages have to cut through the blizzard of communication your readers face.

Studies have shown that within five seconds of glancing at an email, the recipient will decide whether to read and respond, postpone or ignore it. Compressing your communications to their most-compact size will greatly increase the likelihood that recipients will immediately read and respond to your email.

Harry Houdini offers additional support for using the smallest number of words possible. A regular part of his act was to invite audience members onto the stage. He would give several people 20-foot-long pieces of rope or chain and encourage them to tie him up as tightly as possible.

Once the audience members had done their best, Houdini disappeared into a sack and, after some theatrical thrashing about, emerged with the bindings in hand. The secret Houdini knew was that it is easier to escape from a long piece of rope. The longer the rope, the more slack – and the easier for him to escape.

Writing is like that. The more words you use, the easier it is for your meaning to escape.

Write Less to Communicate More

How to ensure your message won’t escape and you will succeed in making your point? A key tactic is to edit ruthlessly. In your first draft, let your fingers fly. Use all the words you want. Once you’ve finished your first draft, though, get your finger over the Delete key.

As you review the document, think about the point you are trying to make. Constantly ask yourself “does this text help make my point?” If not, delete it.

Now the harder work begins. What words can you eliminate? What things can you say more succinctly? In journalism speak, how can you “tighten the copy?”

Once you start looking for them, wasted words are everywhere. In my Be a Better Business Writer program, attendees are always amused by my example of the gigantic banner above a tanning salon near my house. The banner reads, “Free Tanning – Inquire Within.” When asked what words were wasted, attendees quickly identify “inquire within.” If there’s a banner above a tanning salon that says “free tanning,” is there really any doubt about where to go for that freebie?

Here’s a surprising way to pare your writing down a bit: you can almost always delete the word “that.” The next time you are proofreading something, see if you can delete every one of them. Does that make a big difference? No, but concise writing is achieved through many, small improvements.

Write Like You Talk

You can further compress your content by writing like you talk. This, it turns out, is more difficult than it sounds, but with practice can greatly condense and improve your writing. Most people write to be read. Instead, try writing to be heard. Use language you would use in conversation.

“Our intention is to further explore alternative opportunities and methods to eliminate excessive verbiage” is grammatically correct and well written – but it sounds like writing. No human would ever utter those words. It’s dull, lifeless and verbose. Same idea stated as someone would speak it? “We plan to look at ways to use fewer words.” Which is more readable and memorable?

This obviously results in a less-formal style that may not be appropriate for all business communication. I would never use it in technical writing or proposals, for example. For almost all online content, videos and consumer-focused marketing materials, though, it is the style I use. It is more concise and engaging. It’s a better way to make your point.

Less Takes More

Writing concisely and getting your point across in fewer words isn’t fast or easy. Mark Twain is credited with saying “I'm sorry this letter is so long, but I did not have time to write a short one.” My most challenging writing assignments are the ones with very tight word counts. Still, it’s worth the investment of your time to write concisely and improve the chances that your audience will get your point.

Interested in “tightening” up your business writing? Check out Kent State’s “Be a Better Business Writer” program.