Getting to Clarity and Concision in Storytelling

August 2016

Image from ThinkStock

Image from ThinkStock

The other evening I was asked to participate in a phone-based field study on behalf of my city’s local government. This isn’t the first time I’ve done these surveys, but this time I was initially intrigued by the questions and selection of responses. That’s, in part, because the pollster’s questions were long and convoluted. She also strictly kept to the script. Even if I answered before she’d finished (to move things along), she just kept talking and saying she needed to follow protocol.

I remained cooperative, but, truthfully, I started to tune out by the fourth question about changing the local elections system. Twice she had to repeat a long question and equally extensive list of possible responses before I could answer. As a result, the “quick 15 minutes” took closer to a grueling 25 minutes.

It occurred to me a day later that our own storytelling may follow a similar scenario if we aren’t more thoughtful in our approach. We sometimes become so obsessed with fact filling and thoroughness that we ignore how muddled the message has become.

That is why clarity and concision are so important in storytelling, and especially for a topic that requires primers or deep dives. Since our company’s specialty is writing about scientific and technical topics, our Tiger Team of writers, editors and designers are always on alert for bloated copy. Here are some tips I use to keep messaging on target.

Plant and then prune: Go ahead and get it all out there. Then take that brain dump and prune it down to the essentials. Let that pared version gestate for several minutes or hours and then move on to the next step.

Read out loud: This can be a lifesaver when on deadline. Since we actually read with our ears, hearing words as they are meant to be spoken allows you to immediately sense when sentences have gone astray. The fix typically involves transforming complex and convoluted compound sentences into simpler ones.

Talk to yourself. Another tactic I incorporate when faced with a lot of data to fit into very limited space is to go for a short walk or do laundry and talk to myself about the topic. I imagine talking to someone else and by the time I return to my computer screen, I’m ready to revise my word choices.

Talk to someone else. In the process of talking to another person, you may find you immediately start self-editing based on what you hear and what you read on the other person’s face. Did you hold their attention? Did they furrow their brows in confusion or to better concentrate? This, by the way, works best if the listener is close to a topic or owes you a big favor.

Leave it alone. Once you think you’re done, you need to create some distance. Then, in a few hours or day, go back and see your work with fresher eyes. Rarely does a draft remain as written; instead, areas of improvement become more apparent. Of course, this piece of advice also works in reverse. There is such as thing as over-improving and at some point you have to let it go. It’s okay. Unless you are the last reviewer in a draft’s chain of custody, some highly skilled editor or subject matter expert will make sure the piece still shines.

I do wish the politicians who created that phone survey had taken a kernel of the advice I just dispensed. If they had, I think they might have generated more thoughtful responses. And if enough other respondents feel as I did about those wordy queries and didn’t always give accurate answers, then my local city council didn’t just waste our time, they also wasted our taxpayers’ money.

—Anne