My rule of thumb for delivering a message? Less prose, more poetry

We all know how fast the world is moving. Attention spans are short. Our mission is to get our ideas read, remembered, and retold. It doesn’t matter whether you’re crafting company strategy or writing marketing copy. When you need to inspire change, you need to make your message stick.

Which means the communicator has to do the hard work of organizing, curating, and designing the message–so the reader doesn’t have to.

In other words: less prose, more poetry.

Case in point: Last weekend I picked up the book 52 Rules of Thumb a smart, well-written book that compiles and curates some of the best business advice the author, Alan M. Webber, has collected in his career.

Webber is a cofounder of Fast Company. He’s a magazine editor–he gets this. He even describes the book as a sort of I Ching that can either be read front to back, or “flipped open to any lesson, wherever the pages happen to fall, and consider that rule your day’s reading.”

This is a model for the business book that gets to the heart at why people are reading business books. It knows its audience.

We all have less time–and there’s a lot less attention to go around. The amount of information fighting to distract us has reached fever pitch. While having the time to focus is good for your brain, it’s just doesn’t reflect reality.

Company leaders, marketers, copywriters–ignore this at your peril. You only have sentences, maybe even a few short words to get your message across. This is the time for poetry.

It’s too easy to forget who we’re writing for, and why. One of the more effective and efficient pieces of writing advice I’ve heard recently is from copywriter Lindsay Camp, who wrote the fantastic book Can I Change Your Mind. His advice: “Remember the reader and the result.” This is a brilliant and deceptively simple phrase.

Know who your reader is, and exactly what you want them to do when they read. But it’s the first part that tends to trip us up: The audience. Who is the reader? Why are they reading? What else is fighting for their time and attention?

What you’re communicating should be well-organized, easily broken into intelligent, memorable pieces (see informed simplicity), and scannable so the reader can easily come back to it. Books like Made to Stick even include their own outline at the back of the book, and you can even download a cheat sheet pdf that you can stick on your wall. Smart, no?

At Red Hat, we often organize the first page of marketing collateral or product slicks to answer three key questions: “What is it? What does it do? Why should I care?” We do this for two reasons:

First, it forces us to organize and clarify our message. No lengthy introductions, no build-up. What is that one thing we want to make sure people know and remember? Just like Hemingway said on how to start anything, “Write the truest sentence you know.”

The second reason: It makes a promise to the reader that you’ve done the hard work to organize and tighten your message. In one short glance, they’ll know you’ll respect their time and tell them exactly what they want to know. After all, no one has ever read marketing collateral for entertainment value. At least not yet. Hmm…


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