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Abbreviated Meaning
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Shorter And Faster Isn't Necessarily Better Or More Truthful

When did brevity become a synonym for clarity or truth?

For most of human history, it was the exact opposite. What was brief was least important, as usually the format of a statement dictated the attention it deserved. Shortness was equated with incompleteness, which meant that things communicated quickly were more suspect and were considered less trustworthy (a rapid-fire sales pitch or the unknown threat of someone "of few words" being two examples). The common bias was that brevity could be the same as stupidity. It wasn't consistently the case, of course, but it was believed that someone saying little often meant that they had little worth saying.

Conversely, meaning meant nuance, and length was often required to communicate it, so aspiring artists, legislators, and theologians studied rhetoric -- the art of persuasive writing or speaking -- and then honed their skills in debate before presuming to make the case on a topic or issue to an audience. Church sermons were long. So were books and poems. Speeches and sentences had clauses and then subordinate clauses, as if the comma was a dare to the listener or reader. The test of successful communications wasn't if a presenter could earn someone's attention, but rather was someone capable of grasping what he or she was being told.

And yet reasonably ill-educated people still appreciated this communication. How else could Shakespeare get his audiences to laugh and cry at long soliloquies and dense literary allusions? Parishioners would scream out in ecstasy as 18th Century evangelist Jonathan Edwards mumbled his way through endless sermons that relied heavily on detailed Biblical quotes. Try following the speeches from Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, each of which went on for more than 3 hours. They were major live events, made national news, and Lincoln reformatted them into a book that people found so compelling that it helped get him the nomination for President in 1860.

Now, at least when it comes to marketing, if you can't express a thought in 140 characters or less, you risk being left out of the conversation. Ideas need to be reduced to bullet points. Pictures are even better because they can say things without actually saying anything. The marketplace can be best understood by short, pithy observations, and strategies need to be based on simple declarations. More conversation. Less selling. Provide content. New everything.

For students of behavior and human emotions, this a strange predicament. The reality of marketing is a giant textbook, and we're happy reading the Cliff Notes and then writing our book reports as a series of yes/no questions.

Yet it's intoxicating...that feeling you get when you've just read or pondered something that suggests greatness without requiring that you literally understand it. The stuff doesn't have to be exact as much as cool in a visceral way. Quips are quipalicious. Bulleted lists are empowering because they let you touch big things without having to hold them (or get your hands dirty). Business books that make one point and then repeat it for 200 pages, no matter how ludicrous, are far easier to read than those that make, say, two, and actual participation in conversations is much easier in short bursts because they can be forwarded and swapped as easily as the prompting content. Got a marketing issue? Here's a top-ten list of things to do. Add a one-liner comment. Then forward it. It's all quite entertaining.

It's as if the more information we can get, the less of any individual idea we want. We trade substance for frequency. Choose immediacy over nuance. Confuse volume with meaning.

I pride myself as a follower of Occam's razor: things shouldn't be extended more than necessary (i.e. simpler is better). But there's value in detail, nuance, and the very experience of time in portions longer than nanoseconds that I worry we marketers have lost. We're busier than ever, but do we allow ourselves the time and mental space necessary to truly comprehend what the hell it is we’re doing? The challenges of understanding today's consumer and marketplace overall just can't be distilled into posts no longer than a sentence.

That's why I have a nagging suspicion that nobody is ever going to want to revisit our "best" marketing Tweets, or reread the most popular business books of our times...unless The People of the Future want to understand why we chose to forget that shorter and faster isn't necessarily better or more truthful.

Added: 15th July 2010

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