brevity

Don't forget to pick up some de-odious! Why "Sure Unscented" is worth more than $15,000 to your story

"I don't care all the DC council members do it! You don't work for the DC Council, do you?"

Bob? Bob! ... Robert Francis McDonnell get down here this instant!

I was just informed that you took some money out of my wallet to buy toiletries—deodorant, sunscreen, and a … um … a digestive system cleanse. Is this true, Bob? Answer me.

You disappoint me, son.

Oh, you’re darn tootin’ you’ll pay me back, but it’s not about the money, Robert. Heck, we’re only talking about a few dollars. The bigger issues are trust and integrity.

For the last three years, we let you live here rent free. You could take the car whenever you wanted and we—not you—we filled it up when you left the tank empty. We fed you three squares a day, and never complained when you and your buddies raided the fridge after a night of partying. You didn’t even have to do chores because we hired an entire cleaning crew to clean up after you.

All we ever asked is that you pay for your own sundries and incidentals. But apparently, that was just too much for you to manage.

I don’t know, Bob. Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we’ve been too lenient with all you little governors. Looking back I probably should have stepped in when Jonnie Williams gave you that $15,000 check to cover the catering at Cailin’s wedding. But, darn it all, that check put such a big smile on your face I just couldn’t tell you that your excuse for taking it was flimsier than an Ikea bookshelf.

Bob, did I ever tell you about the time that I ran out of deodorant? I was getting ready for an important meeting and I was running late. Yeah, again. Anyway, when I popped the cap off the deodorant, the last little clump of Sure Unscented fell right into the sink. I tried to scrape up as much as I could, but there was only enough to barely cover my left arm pit. And the only other deodorant in the house was some very sweet strawberry roll-on that my girls were wearing back in their middle-school days.

Long story short, when I put in my contact lenses, I darn near fried my corneas because I hadn’t quite washed all of that deodorant off of my fingers. So by the time I got to my meeting with ol’ man Digby, my eyes were red, my pits were stained, and I smelled like an eighth-grade girl after volley ball practice.

And you want to know the worst part, Bob? I was just at the Rite Aid the day before but I forgot to pick up deodorant. So you see, I really can relate to buying deodorant.

And that's the lesson for you, Bob. Nobody really understands—or much cares—about your crazy transportation plans, or whether you knew that taking Jonnie’s check was probably illegal. The common man just doesn’t relate to big numbers and abstract concepts. But when you’re talking deodorant and bowel cleansers, well son, you’ve got their full attention.

So when you do tell a story, make every effort to speak of the little things that you think your audience can relate to. Oh, and use concrete words as often as possible. If you do, you’ll find that people will really enjoy listening to—and retelling—your stories.

Now go put your jeans on, son. You’ve got some chores to do today!

Seven things you can do today to improve your writing

"I can't remember the seventh one either. Isn't that weird?" 1. Strip down to your BVDs. To everybody but your mother, your organization is just another unknown guitar player on the Venice Beach boardwalk, a Robert John Burck if you will.

Who? Exactly.

Burck was a “piss-poor, no-good” guitar-playing model who couldn’t busk enough change on a good day to buy a venti Frappuccino–until he got naked. Now, Burck—aka The Naked Cowboy—is a fixture in Times Square who has made a fortune with his trademarked Naked Cowboy franchise. Lesson: Find that one feature that separates you from the pack, and ride it till you shred the tires.

2. Hunt down and kill clichés. The cliché is a cunning quarry. It blends in with your creative copy, waiting silently for your reader to stumble upon it and then BAM! It bores them to tears. So be …

Dear God! Nobody move. There’s a cliché right behind us. Don’t panic. Just reach deep into your brain and pull out some creativity. No, the right side, you fool! Dig deeper! I know it’s in there. Good. Now, let’s pray to God this works.

… for your reader to stumble upon it and then BAM! It leaps straight into her brain, devouring any interest she may have had in reading further. So be vigilant. The story you save may be your own.

3. Help people feel big numbers. Employing the “to-the-moon-and-back” gimmick to explain a big number is like using Ken and Barbie dolls to demonstrate a passionate kiss. If you must drop a big number into your copy, drop it on the audience’s feet. Need to show them a trillion? Start with something they can grasp, like a second. If one million seconds equals 11-and-a-half days, how long is a billion seconds? 32 years. Which means a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. Brain cramp, right? That’s how you leave a mark with a number.

4. Sing your story. A well written story is a song. Whether it flows lyrically or marches forward with a staccato beat, a good story has a tempo that augments the message and enhances the reader’s experience. And it’s surprisingly easy to do. As you edit, read your copy out loud. If you don’t notice a natural cadence to the narration, try culling a few syllables—through word choice or word chopping—to make your copy more melodic.

5. Don't forget to floss your copy. Even the best copy can get gummed up with jargon, acronyms, and legalese. To prevent unsightly copy-stain buildup, scour your copy vigorously. And be extra vigilant with the phrase “wide variety.” If you ever find it in your copy, hit “ctrl A” then “ctrl x.” That should clear up the problem right away.

6. Hit on one member of your audience. You wouldn’t try to hook up with every person at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, would you? Of course not. You want to focus all that charisma into a single charm-laser so you have a better chance of not going home alone. Same with writing. Envision who you are writing for—in detail—then hit that person with all the Cyrano you can muster.

7. Imagine that your new friend has to go to the bathroom. Really bad. Nobody ever complained about a speech being too short. The same goes for just about everything else you write. If you spend as much energy compressing your word count as you do finding fun phrases, you will have a more appreciative—and less squirmy—audience.

 

Short-Attention Span Theatrics

"Curious George? Really, that's what you want? What are you, like, four years old or something?" When I was 12, my father took the four of us kids to a book store near the University of Michigan, presumably so he could check that box on his “Things I must do with the kids so I can tell people I did it” list.

Michael, 13, who would someday become a doctor, chose Grey’s Anatomy. Mary Beth, almost 11—who devoured books like the “Planet Killer” on Star Trek devoured planets (season 2, episode 6)—found and hugged a copy of Gone with the Wind. Marnie, picked Stuart Little. She had no intention of reading it, but even at eight she knew that by spiffing up Dad’s I-bought-all-my-kids-books story she would take the lead in the perpetual race for his affection.

But I didn’t want a book.

“You're getting a book.”

“I don’t want a book. Honest.”

“John, we’re not leaving this store until ... you … select … a  book.”

Today, a kid who disliked reading as much as I did would be screened for dyslexia and ADD. But back then the diagnosis was simply “he’s not a reader.” I was good at reading people, though, and I knew this book drive was less about my story-reading pleasure and more about Dad’s story-telling pleasure. He couldn’t check that box if I didn’t buy a book.

Out of frustration (and maybe a little spite), I chose The Big Book of Jokes and Riddles “recommended for kids from six to 99!” Hell, I fit the bill. And the book was made for me—it had lots of pictures, acres of white space, and short entries. The longest joke didn’t top 400 characters.

“That's really the book you want?”

“Yep.”

Three seconds of his withering death stare and then … checkmate. I win.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a pioneer in the short-attention-span movement that would sweep the globe by the time my own kids were old enough to play me as well as I played my dad.

That movement declared victory this week when Yahoo! paid a teenager $30 million for an app called Summly which shrinks news articles down to 400-character summaries, turning everyone’s phone into The Big E-Book of News and Commentary.

In his press statement announcing the deal (which, I feel compelled to point out, ran far longer than 400 characters), 17-year-old inventor Nick D'Aloisio said,  “Our vision is to simplify how we get information.”

Simplify? Really? Have you ever thumbed through yards of Dewey Decimal drawers in search of the alpha-numeric code that would lead you to a distant bookshelf where the book you were looking for used to be hidden before it was checked out by someone else? Ever spent an evening squinting at news articles on microfiche desperate to finish your homework before the library closed? Ever try to write a term paper using the Encyclopedia Britannica as your Internet?

I didn’t think so.

The only way it could get easier to get information today is if it were injected straight into our brain ports Matrix style.

As a storyteller, it's important for you to understand how your audience consumes information. And these days, it's in tiny, flashy, bites. Folks aren't ordering Chateaubriand with Sauce Bernaise anymore. They want Pop Rocks and a large Coke--to go.

So give it to them. Spend some time crafting a compelling lede to hook them. Then edit your copy until it squeaks to keep them on the line. Then edit it again. And once you've made your point, stop writing.