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99's On the Go
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Creative Learning Director of
The Flirefly Group.
© 2017 Brian Remer
Updated Jan. 2017
99's on the 9th
based on 99-Word Stories that
come to you on the 9th of every month.
January 2017 - Simply Exact: Brevity Can be Better
Read this story aloud or make copies for your group or team members.
My friend Sarah likes to be precise. Send her a simple email, she'll reply with an essay. She wants to be clear, meticulous, understood. But, by giving so many details, you begin to wonder about things that hadn't occurred to you.
You write to Sarah for clarification. She replies with more specifics, leaving you curious about a few instances she hasn't outlined. After another round of messages, you find yourself looking for hidden implications and questioning life's meaning. Sarah's "clarity" becomes a fog of confusion. Her main point has been obscured.
Sometimes, fewer words can mean more.
You can build upon the theme of this 99-Word Story by using some of the following questions for your own reflection or to spark a discussion within your team or organization.
There are many ways to understand this story as the discussion questions suggest. If you or your group would like to compare or contrast your interpretation with an outside viewpoint, consider this analysis.
Is this 99-Word Story a result of a type of communication, a clash of personalities, extremes of preference for what to emphasize in a conversation, or some other factor? Whatever the explanation, the story makes clear that a lot of time spent sending emails could have been spend doing work!
For as much as North Americans talk about saving and managing time (it is money, after all!), we don't seem to apply that same thinking to our writing or speech. People seem perfectly content to prattle on, extending their sentences with meaningless verbiage that doesn't really exemplify, elaborate, or expand upon their main (stop me here, will you please?) point…
In fact, many big ideas have been delivered with few words. Both the Tora and the Old Testament of the Bible managed to condense all the laws for living into just 10 Commandments. "Yes," you may say, "But that was God!"
Yet ordinary humans can say much with little too. President Lincoln made his point in the Gettysburg Address with only 272 words (fewer words than have been written on this page up to this point). And Einstein's theory of Special Relativity in all its complexity can be summarized in the simple, elegant equation of E = mc2.
Many organizations know the power of brevity and use it to promote their brand, products, and services. Most people in the U.S. know that NAACP stands for a civil rights organization and AARP is an organization for senior citizens. Around the world, some organizations are known only by their acronyms. Kentucky Fried Chicken is now simply KFC and UNICEF is an organization that helps children around the globe, though you may not know what all those letters stand for (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, if you are curious).
When is it best to be brief? Here are a (very) few suggestions:
- When making your point - Talking too much can become a lecture. Being brief gives others a chance to ask questions and engage in dialogue.
- When giving instructions or directions - Ask people what they need to know. Ask how much detail they want. Allow time for questions that clarify.
- When sharing information - Find out what people already know. Connect their knowledge to the information you want them to learn.
- When describing a situation or event - Give the most important result first. Fill in the back story later if needed.
Of course, there are caveats when being brief.
- Consider the context. A long-winded story at the dinner table with friends is welcome entertainment. But it will probably be distracting at a staff meeting.
- Be sensitive. Some cultures value deep relationships and a slower orientation to time. They care less about having the facts in hand first.
- Include people. Though acronyms save time and ink, they can make others feel like outsiders if they don't know your "language."
At its basic, being brief comes down to trust. With a short message, we must trust that people will understand our intent and follow through. When trust is absent, we need more words, more rules, and more lawyerly language to cover the gaps created by distrust.
Did you use this 99-Word Story and the discussion questions or interpretation in your work or personal life? If so, about your experience! If you would like help using 99-Word Stories in your organization, please me.
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