On Brevity

Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.

Legend has it that Hemingway penned this famous “six-word story”, though there’s little evidence to support or deny the claim. In a way that’s ideal, since the concept is more powerful bereft of a creator. Brevity is powerful stuff.

The line above was supposedly in answer to a challenge: Write a story with a beginning, middle and end using less than ten words. It accomplishes the goal, pulling heartstrings and fueling speculation with ease. This is messaging at its finest—carefully-chosen words that produce a specific effect, rather than letting runaway copy dilute the meaning.

Brevity is, in many respects, a lost art. While the Web has shifted away from sheer volume content to quality, there’s still a drive for companies to toss as much as they can online and hope something sticks, hope something gets Liked, retweeted or Stumbled. What’s more, much of this content never gets removed, even when it’s no longer relevant. The result? Brevity gives way to bulk and brand identity gets lost in the shuffle.

What do readers remember? Pithy lines, catchy phrases and as Maya Angelou famously remarked “how you made them feel.”

The Hemingway example embodies this idea. It doesn’t oversell by adding detail and leaves enough room for interpretation that readers can divine their own meaning. Or consider Nike’s famous slogan, “Just Do It.” Do what? The answer varies from person to person, but the underlying idea is universal: Persevere.

Used well, brevity can elevate a brand from simple product or service to a kind of quasi-personhood, able to trigger an emotional response that doesn’t seem calculated or insincere.

It’s simple; it’s hard. It’s content, evolved.




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