Any writer who has studied the craft for more than ten minutes has heard the expression "kill your darlings" popularized by William Faulker. The advice refers to the ruthless excision of any piece of writing or turn of phrase that does not serve the reader or the goal for the piece of writing--no matter how much you may love those words. In my first few months at Saatchi & Saatchi X I committed the cardinal sin: I failed to kill extra words.
After a certain horrendous email, my boss, called me in to let me know she was struggling with my writing style. She reminded me that business emails required a different style than the stories and essays I was known for.
Cue the dying. Face. Palm.
Hello, worst emails ever sent in the history of corporate communications.
How had I missed the mark so badly?
Of course I knew how to write a business email. I got an "A" in memo-writing in college. I wrote letters to the IRS for the partners of accounting firms. However, in those early days at the agency my shaky confidence showed up as entirely too many words in emails. They had to be painful to read, if they were read at all.
Worse yet, my wordy messages were undermining my credibility and authority, making it difficult for people to believe I knew what I was doing.
The popular speaker's advice to Be Bold, Be Brief, and Be Gone applies to all kinds of communication. In part because bold and brief are easier to remember when you're gone. Whether in a business email, novel manuscript, speech, donation request letter, or face to face interaction, extra words usually serve only to undermine authority.
Don't Be Clever, Be Clear
The years I spent creating online content taught me that clarity wins the heart of search engines. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the same style that works for search engine algorithms works for human readers and listeners too. Unless you are telling a story to kids who don't want to go to sleep--EVER--brevity and precision always win.
As I've told every writer I've ever managed or coached: Don't be clever, be clear.
Qualifiers, adjectives, adverb, and too many niceties undermine your authority because they delay getting to the point. The more words you use, the less power each of them have.
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was 272 words. No darlings survived the edit. In just over two minutes, Lincoln conveyed historical context, made meaning of the Civil War, and rallied listeners around a renewed and reframed purpose for the United States to exist.
Pretty sure my shitty email was more than 272 words.
One of my favorite books on the craft of writing is William Zinsser's On Writing Well. That's where I first learned the value of brevity and precision.
In speaking, in writing-- be clear over clever, and your audience will believe you, and follow you, sign the clipboard, and write the check.