The 300-Word Opus (or Why Brief Isn’t Always Better)

I’m trying to fit a post into 300 words today. This is the word count a Corp Comm department recently placed on intranet news items (features receive an expansive 500), and I wanted to learn what’s possible in finite space.

Some things aren’t better in small doses. When have you ever said, “I wish there was less of that,” about a delectable dessert, your favorite film (this is, in fact, why sequels and film-franchise reboots exist), the first sunny afternoon after a hard winter, or a great book (“Yes, Miss Austen, I know it’s difficult to develop two characters plus their circle of family and friends, play out their misguided stubbornness, help them overcome their worst qualities so they can find their best and fall in love, but, really, don’t you think the headline ‘Pride and Prejudice’ says it all? Three hundred words should suffice.”)?

At the same time this department was asked to slice and dice content, they were informed it needed to incorporate more compelling storytelling, real-life examples, a vision for the future, and humor. (Presumably because humor is so frequently welcomed by corporate leaders and content reviewers, and especially appropriate when introducing new HR policies, but I digress and, at 203 words and counting, I can’t afford asides.)

I’m all for pithy. For three decades, I’ve counseled writers to be specific, edit closely, trust the exact meaning of a word to do the work and apply its bearing to a sentence. But, brevity for brevity’s sake doesn’t give employees weighty material – it can’t convey the detailed information that informs their work and improves understanding of the business environment or the direction of the company. And when have employees ever wanted less explanation about changes critical to their departments, pay or responsibilities?

Normally, I prefer to offer at least three practical tips that readers can use in their own work if they find them valuable. At 300 words, dear reader, that’s impossible, which means I leave out the How, as well as the Why.

Yikes, I’m at 340 Words! Time to Bring it on Home

Online and social media writing isn’t as different from the old print world as it’s made out to be. Word limits are a trend – we’ve seen this one before, it’ll surface from the swamp of bad advice when the next new channel is invented. It comes up because communications departments want to provide value, but struggle when employees don’t read internal communications (more on that here).

But, employees aren’t tuning out because content is long or because social media like Twitter are somehow training them for shorter content. Employees will take the time if content is of value to them and can be directly utilized in the context of their work – and when it makes them feel better about the company.

We do no great service to employees, or any reader, when we make arbitrary rules that reduce subject matter to headlines, limit the ability to provide sources (plural, because facts should be verified and readers need to know how much authority to grant sources), force us to skimp on explanations (in a tumultuous business environment, one of the most valuable things writers can do for employees is build the foundation and case for change while underscoring the culture’s values). Try doing that in 300 or 500 words.

Write clear. Write well. But, write the story whole.

(P.S. This blog post is 564 words. My point exactly.)