After leaving the political newspaper Politico in 2016, journalists Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz went on to create Axios, a service that they described as “a mix between The Economist and Twitter” and which gained popularity thanks to its approach to delivering news: texts of no more than 300 words, accompanied by summaries and twists to catch the attention of the reader, who is lured in with clickbait headlines. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz got $10 million to launch it. Seven years later, they sold it for $525 million.
“Roughly one-third of work emails that require attention go unread. Most words of most news stories are not seen. Most chapters of most books go untouched,” write the three journalists – not without a bit of drama – in a cultural moment in which everything that acquires visibility is susceptible to being franchised, from a youtuber’s opinions to an Ecce Homo blunder. It was only a matter of time before the Axios method reached other formats, and now its creators have published Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less (Workman Publishing Company, 2022) , a book where they take an even more radical approach with a new concept: everything worth saying can be said in six words.
The Axios method tries to relieve a specific discomfort that has to do, on one hand, with the huge amount of information that we are forced to process every day, and on the other, with the resulting decrease in our ability to deal with it. “We’re wallowing in noise and nonsense most of our waking hours. Be honest: You’re a prisoner to words. Writing them. Reading them. Listening to them. Then we wait, fidgeting, chasing instant gratification or just more – a laugh, a provocation, a news nugget, a connection, a like, a share, retweets, Snaps,” state the authors, who add: “We scan, not read, almost everything that pops up on our screens. Mostly we’re feeding a need for dopamine jolts that come from yet more texts, googling, buzz, Slacks, videos, posts. We check our phones 344-plus times each day – once every 4 minutes, at least. This new and exhausting phenomenon has jammed our inboxes, paralyzed workplaces, clogged our minds. All of us confront an epic challenge: How do you get anyone to pay attention to anything that matters in this mess?”
Regarding the writing of texts (of any kind, not only journalistic ones), their formula is: Write what you want the reader, viewer or listener to remember. Write it down before doing anything else. Then, try to shorten it to less than a dozen words. It should be a statement or data, not a question. Make sure it is new or essential. Remove any weak words and excess verbs or adjectives. Then stop.
Smart Brevity is written in the style of Axios and in the language of social media and bad journalism: colloquial, judgmental, indulgent and aggressive, as if it was written in all caps. It is a style that operates by subtraction. The authors, whose motto is: “Brevity is confidence. Length is fear,” boast that their method was inspired by the CIA briefings that used to be prepared for Donald Trump during his presidency, and point out that it responds to the same drive to simplify things that brought popularity to minimalist web design, Marie Kondo’s “less is more” philosophy and books like How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and How to Simplify Your Life by Werner Tiki Küstenmacher and Lothar Seiwert.
That longing for simplification is also behind written communication optimization services like Grammarly, WordTune and Readable, as well as “Toki Pona,” a language developed by the Canadian linguist Sonja Lang that only consists of 120 words and is already being used in some schools. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz promise that if we embrace their “smart brevity,” we can be recognized and remembered, write in a more captivating manner, keep everyone “aligned and inspired,” expand our client base and, basically, be heard again. Their system “guides you into saying a lot more with a lot less,” they write, “and that is its greatest power.”
There is a problem with the Axios method, however. Like those of Dale Carnegie at the time, the promises of the authors of Smart Brevity — more money, more influence, more power — are difficult to fulfill in most lives. But the radical simplification that its creators propose has other issues, and the main one is that simplified communication is not only unattractive, but also counterproductive: the complexity of political events and social and economic developments, as well as that of public and private organizations of late capitalism, requires a type of communication that, unfortunately or not, is also complex. Giving someone like Trump a briefing with phrases like “Afghan government and security officials are discussing evacuation plans, according to [intel attributed here], indicating that most ANSF in the region are not planning any organized resistance to the coming offensive” might not be particularly effective, as the authors claim, but to offer an alternative that simply reads “The U.S.-trained Afghan military needs to be ready to stop drilling and start fighting” is potentially catastrophic, as is often the case when people who lack information consider themselves well informed.
That is why the Afghan government fell in just a few hours. Even the most seemingly strong and stable democracy can be gradually eroded by oversimplifying common affairs, until it becomes something else, only superficially democratic. “With the old ways of communicating, almost no one is listening,” declare the authors of Smart Brevity. However, the problem is not that these forms of communication are “old,” but that the “new” ones are teaching us to stop listening while they turn verbal violence into an everyday thing in the form of social media posts, headlines and statements.
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