K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid!
We are all authors. We are all salesmen.Vol. 6, Issue No. 16 | August 24, 2010 By Denny Hatch
IN THE NEWSJurors Fault Complexity of the Blagojevich Trial
CHICAGO — As the jurors in the corruption case against Rod R. Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, entered a 25th-floor conference room here, one problem was instantly clear: They were overwhelmed.
The judge had handed them instructions that ran to more than a hundred pages. The verdict sheet was as elaborate as some income tax forms. And many of the 24 counts they were being asked to consider came in multiple parts and were highly technical and interconnected.
“It was like, 'Here's a manual, go fly the space shuttle',” Steve Wlodek, one of the jurors, said Wednesday ...
In the end, the jurors convicted Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat elected to two terms as governor, on one charge of giving a false statement to federal agents, but reached a conclusion that is rare in criminal cases: that they could not agree on the 23 other counts, including the most serious ones.
—Monica Davey and Susan Saulny
The New York Times, Page 1, Aug. 19, 2010
I am personally terrified of boring or confusing my readers. When writers go off-message, self-indulgently show off with florid words that need looking up, employ horrendously long sentences and indecipherable syntax (the kind of crap found frequently in academia), they have no respect for the reader’s time.
This is especially true on the Internet, where the writer’s message is one mouse click away from oblivion.
I invite you to feel the disgust of the UK’s greatest living direct marketer, Drayton Bird, long-time associate of David Ogilvy:
So I read about a seminar in “power talking” and “communication skills” with great interest―especially when it said that 80% of people fail at work because they don’t “relate well” to other people ...“a clear case of failed communication.”
Well, the seminar was cheap, the course leader is practically a genius―“multi skilled as an Occupational Psychologist, Executive Mentor, Presenter and Counsellor”―and the subject is highly relevant.
But the copy put me off. As far as I or anyone else who cares for the English language might be concerned it was indeed a case of failed communication. It had more clichés and jargon in it than a politician’s speech.
I was promised “user-friendly, high-level skills” and “solution-focused communication techniques.” There was obsessive use of expressions based on the word “impact”―“impacts on,” “impactful,” “high-impact” and “positive impact.” And naturally that shop-soiled word "engage" popped up (why not "intrigue" or "interest"?)
If that's how people who teach communication write, it explains a lot of the mindless tripe we all have to plough though―in documents, on the Internet, in meetings: everywhere.
Every day you are trying to get colleagues, bosses, customers―maybe family―to do what you want. Whether you like it or not, life is one long sales pitch―and most of that selling is done in writing.
Takeaways to Consider
- Below are four rules I follow when I start to prepare copy.
- Clear your mind. For some persons, this might mean lying down for a few minutes before going to work. For others, it could mean jumping in the pool or jogging around a track. Frolic, spend time with someone you love or go dancing. Do whatever comes naturally to you in order to have a clear mind for creative purposes.
- Never write when you're tired. You're not going to try to drive or operate machinery when you're tired. Don't try to write if you're fatigued.
- Never write when you're busy. If there are other demands pressing on you, tend to them first. I don't think anyone can write well when they are watching the clock. Don't try to write if you have appointments later in the day or errands to run.
- Don't write in bits and pieces. Once you've turned on your creative energy, you need to keep it flowing. I don't stop until I complete a draft. I try not to stop even for meals. ―Ted Nicholas, “The Golden Mailbox,” legendary direct marketer, publisher, copywriter, teacher
- When Ernest Hemingway finished writing a novel, he would stick the manuscript in a drawer and go deep-sea fishing, hunting in Africa or attend bullfights in Spain. On his return several months later, he would be able to read the book with fresh eyes and immediately see where he went off the track and what needed work. Most of us under deadline do not have this kind of time. However, not looking at a piece of writing for 12 or 24 hours or longer and then going back to it for edits and rewrites can be beneficial.
- “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.” ―Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), “A Moveable Feast”
- "I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it.” —Ernest Hemingway
- "[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." —William Faulkner (1897-1962)
- "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” —Ernest Hemingway
- "If you read Hemingway, you will notice the effectiveness of a maximum of thought and a minimum of words.” ―Earl Nightingale (1921-1989), motivational speaker, co-founder of Nightingale-Conant
- "Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.” ―Andrew J. Byrne (d.2006), freelancer, author of “21 Deadly Mistakes for Advertisers”
- “I don't know the rules of grammar ... If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.” —David Ogilvy
- “Your best lede is somewhere in the middle of page 2 of the first draft of your letter.” ―Pat Friesen, Target Marketing magazine columnist and freelancer
- "How long should the letter be? As a sometime angler, I get a better sense of length by remembering a fishing trip to Maine when we used dry flies with barbless hooks. Unless you kept up the tension all the way to the net, you lost the trout. Try it. You should feel the same sort of tension when you write and when you read a letter. If not, reel in the slack.” ―Malcolm Decker, freelancer
- Know your readers, and only go off-message with personal digressions if you are sure they love your work and are delighted with everything you write.
- Ruthlessly self-edit, because most folks in business do not have a professional editor to look over their shoulders and tidy up their work.
- Always put your work through spell check before releasing it. In the world of the Internet, a typo is forever.
- "It takes hard writing to make easy reading.” ―Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer