Picture the scene. Manhattan, New York City. A group of writers are dining at a swanky restaurant. One of them has just made an audacious claim. Complete with beginning, middle and end, he says he can write a six-word-long short story.
The others are incredulous. That’s absurd! How could he possibly build characters, plotlines and depth for even the vaguest of stories in a meagre six words?
Keen to prove his point, the confident writer challenges them to a bet. $10 each says he can do it. If the others judge he’s failed, he’ll match them.
As they gleefully place their ten dollars in the middle of the table, the writer scribbles his story on a napkin, which then begins to make its way around the table.
They each slowly read it. Agreement is reached without words. Ernest Hemingway wins his bet.
And the story? Simple, stark, and complete enough to deliver what a story should: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
An engaging message needn’t be long
The tale of Hemingway’s six-word story will remain unsubstantiated, but it illustrates an important point. Quality beats quantity. Brevity stampedes verbosity.
Short communication needn’t be less engaging or emotive. In fact, when language is utilised appropriately, it’s often more engaging for audiences. We can captivate interest, stimulate creativity and provoke questions through brevity.
Questions like why weren’t the shoes worn?
Almost invariably, at first it provokes a question of tragedy. Did the baby die? But then the story provokes other questions and answers. Was there a change of plans? Did the parents simply not like the style of the shoes? Maybe the baby was born with giant feet!
Good storytelling engages and provokes thought – and a concise, clear message helps to deliver it. This is true of communication in any form, but it’s particularly relevant in the modern world.
We’re telling stories every day. Email dominates most of our working lives, and mobile communications a sizeable portion of our social lives. Meanwhile, our distraction-laden, hectic environments are unquestionably reducing our attention spans.
In short, our new world demands brevity. It demands, to put it another way, minimalism in our communication. Using concise, engaging language that takes stock of this fact can present powerful advantages.
Our education has it all upside down
But it’s not so easy. After all, most of us have been trained to do the opposite. We spend our educations learning to expand our arguments to meet lengthy word requirements. We’re taught to articulate our case in academic language, often less engaging and accessible.
How our schooling teaches us to communicate – and particularly, write – runs contrary to the fast-paced, low-attention requirements of the real world.
“We have two ears and one mouth so we that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”Epictetus
In truth, we even make better arguments when we’re brief. Academic research in the field of argumentation theory increasingly accepts the strength of concise over verbose arguments. Ironically, the latter still dominates academic writing.
While we undeniably strengthen our communication during schooling, we do not harness the precision and concision that the external world demands. After all, you’ll rarely hear anyone in the working world complain that a presentation was too short, a meeting too quick, or an email too summarised.
When we leave full-time education behind us, we enter a ‘communicative adjustment period’. For some, we pass through that adjustment quickly. For others, it takes us a while – and even some candid feedback – to realise that our detailed emails aren’t helping anybody.
But even after this adjustment, the truth is we’re still not fully capitalising on the benefits of brevity. A culture of long meetings, protracted problem solving, and poorly summarised emails still prevails. Minimalism can offer important lessons about communication for all of us.
Minimalism and communication: some principles
#1: Respect your audience
Being concise isn’t just about adapting to the demands of modern life. Time is precious and demands respect. When we write War and Peace by email or extend a meeting or presentation unnecessarily, we’re using up our own and others’ precious time and energy.
Brevity, on the other hand, respects our audience. We benefit by being economical with words, and our readers and interlocutors benefit too. Both parties save on time and energy.
By maximising information density, both parties transmit or receive a clear, succinct message in quick fashion. And in the world of marginal gains, these time savings can rapidly accumulate into serious productivity gains.
#2: Build your vocabulary for precision, not pomposity
English is one of the richest languages in the world, with some 171,476 words in current use, according to the second edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. That’s a heck of lot of options.
Those options bring unique communicative advantages. Provided there’s mutually shared depth of knowledge, it means we can handpick our words to say much more with less.
But remember, broader vocabulary provides clarity in quicker time. It should not be an opportunity to bamboozle audiences with the unfamiliar. Choose your words wisely – and again, respect your audience.
#3: Be brief, and polite
So, you’ve gone all in with brevity. The new you will focus on shorter, clearer communication, free from clutter. And when your colleague asks you how your weekend was, you’ll deliver a swift, clear response. Fine, thank you.
If you’ve gone down that road, you’re missing the point. Of course, I’m not promoting this approach. Minimalism in communication is about using language to be more precise, but also more engaging. This response is precise, but it certainly isn’t engaging.
Choose your moments for briefness sensibly. Be careful not to be so concise that you are direct and abrupt. Be brief, and polite.
#4: Concise isn’t always precise
Minimalism in communication is about the conjunction of clarity and brevity. It is not about less words for sake of less words. Sometimes we need to put flesh on the bones of our arguments. Sometimes we can’t provide the answers in three bullet points.
This is important. Never, ever put brevity before clarity. If you’re doing this, you’re again missing the point. Brevity is a tool to be clearer. But concise isn’t always precise.
A final word on minimalism and communication
I love language. From learning new languages to exploring the depths of our own. So, let me be clear: I’m not advocating an approach to communication entirely based on being efficient with words. Sometimes descriptive language can add colour and character to storytelling. That’s not something that should be lost.
But we must, however, recognise the world has changed. Our attention is more impaired than ever and our lives busier than ever. Minimalism in communication can help us catch up. It can help us find time to be in the present moment. It can help us find time to concentrate on ‘deep work’, benefiting us and others.
What’s more, it can help us be clearer and more engaging. Brevity can inform and provoke thought more effectively than longwinded, arduous communications.
We’re sacrificing clarity and time carrying needless lexical baggage. When approached in the right spirit, minimalism in communication can ease the burden. It can help us have happier, more meaningful conversations, fit for the modern world.