To communicate with precision and impact, focus on what you’re not saying.
Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants begins: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.”
Two sentences. Thirty-four words, 50% three letters or fewer. Yet these two spare sentences conjure a vivid, arid setting of heat, barrenness and no small amount of tension. And Hemingway does it by pointing out what’s not in the scene. The entire story has fewer than 1,500 words but illustrates what Hemingway called his “iceberg” theory of writing. The words of the story are the part of the iceberg visible above the water; the 90% under the water go unseen.
People had short attention spans when Hemingway wrote his story in 1927. Nearly a century later, attention spans are of course much shorter. Readers today are acclimated to 15-second TikTok videos vs. the 587,287 words that make up War and Peace. Assume you need to re-earn your audience’s attention every 15 seconds. You need to say a lot using few words.
But how? Businesses face the challenge of communicating challenging, complex (and dull) information and ideas to audiences with a wide range of existing understanding and ability.
Clarity First… and Last
The first goal is clarity. Before you can persuade anyone, people need to be able to figure out what you’re trying to say. How important is clarity? Some suggest the redoubtable “Gods of Strategy” at Bain and McKinsey & Co. earn their extraordinary fees not so much by creating novel strategies that executive management of their clients failed to consider. There’s the legendary story of a client who complained at the conclusion of a strategy presentation, “You haven’t told us anything we didn’t already know.” The consultant rejoined, “I cannot speculate what you did or did not know prior to our engagement. I can only comment on what you did, or in this case, did not do to act on this knowledge.” Instead it is the clear manner and compelling logic Bain and McKinsey use to explain the rationale for its recommendations that renders them ineluctable and enables people to grasp their merit and act on them.
For rarefied top tier management consultants, clarity is sufficient because their clients pay them millions of dollars a page and they damn well better pay attention. But clarity alone for you and me is not enough. Unless you engage and perhaps even entertain, people are not going to stick around long enough to be convinced by your brilliance. Don’t despair. There are a bunch of techniques, tactics and tricks successful writers use that you, dear reader, can deploy on your own — including techniques from writers of fiction, true storytellers, that will help even the most downtrodden technical writer achieve maximum impact.
Were you to travel to the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston to examine Hemingway’s drafts and manuscripts, you would discover how he pulls this off. Many people think that Hemingway was a testosterone-charged autodidact oaf on autopilot banging out the spare, staccato, singular paratactic style that’s been parodied countless times. Far from it. Hemingway’s drafts are remarkable for how much original work he excised. Through a process he called “boiling it down, never spreading it thin,” Hemingway took the sharpest of sharp pencils to his work and left only the essential essence — the 10% — for his readers. No subordinate clauses. No flowery digressions. No self-indulgent turns of phrase or languid descriptions. Just the essence of what he intended to communicate.
Your Very Own Iceberg
We can’t write like Hemingway but we can devote a commensurate level of effort and industry before imposing on someone to read what we have written. To that end, just like Dickens did with Great Expectations (well not quite) over the next several weeks I will be serializing some of the techniques I’ve picked up to improve my ability to reach, if not win over, hearts and minds. Take them as independent bits or a complete series as you like. And please weigh in with your own, particularly and especially if they run counter to my recommendations. Together, we just might make some headway for straight talk and clear expression in a world awash in BS.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.