The Importance of Being Brief...Just Ask Hemingway

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (October 9, 2014)

What if I asked you to write a 500-word story in just six words? Seems like one of those impossible tasks sadistic journalism professors foist upon freshman. And while it can serve that purpose, it's also a lesson for professional marketers. One that just might lead to a serious advancement of your content's engagement—and by extension your marketing RoI.

So how does Ernest Hemingway fit into all this? A potentially apocryphal story goes that Hemingway bet some friends that he could tell an entire story in just six short words. Sounded like easy money, so the ante was laid on the table. Hemingway then scribbles "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." He won the bet.

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter--Blaise Pascal

As a new parent, when I read that story, my heart stopped. "My God, the poor baby, he died." To other friends who read it (mostly in the fashion field) "Oh, he didn't die, the parents just didn't like the style and wanted to get rid of them." And so the list of interpretations can go on.

The point of this is that Hemingway could have told the same story in a 10,000-word novella, but he conveyed the same powerful emotional impact in six words. Now Hemingway sits in the literary pantheon of demigods, but this task can be accomplished by mere mortals like us all the same.

A Hemingway-ean Task

It's a bit cruel for me to ask you to set down and generate a six-word story from thin air, though I'm sure some of you could do it. I've found there's a more programmatic way that helps boil-down a story from a Rubenesque 500-word container to a more svelte six to 10.

  1. Find a piece of content written by you or someone else that's 500 words or greater.

  2. Take that content and identify what you believe to be its most important component—not necessarily the lead, but what journalists call the Nut Graph.

  3. Re-write the story at 1/4 of its original length. So for a 500-word piece around 100-125 words or about a paragraph.

  4. Now step away for a day or two and come back and re-write your 100-125 word story at 1/4 of its length, around 30 words or about a sentence or two.

  5. Finally, comes the tricky part: take your one or two-sentence story and bring it down to 10 words or less.

To see if you got it right, share it with a few folks, and ask what they take away from the story you've created. How does it compare to the original story in terms of its emphasis and passed-along knowledge? This is a test that all new correspondents at AlleyWire must perform before on-boarding, and I've also implemented it for marketing associates at the investment consultancy where I  lead marketing efforts. The results are usually eye-opening.

This five-step program, done just a few times, will help you and your team realize the value of simplicity (and the difficulty in obtaining it), and similarly, help you all recognize unnecessary verbosity in others.

So Why Do This?

Are we simply writing short copy for brevity's sake? No, there's a much greater purpose. First is the growth of micro-content as a primary form of communication. You've got 140 characters on Twitter and 10 seconds or less for Vine and Instagram video. Ask anyone at The Shorty Awards, and you'll be 'briefed' on the value of micro-content. Yes, pun intended.

But other than our societal shift towards shorter forms of communication, there are some real engagement statistics behind the idea of shorter-is-better. A recent blog post by video player Wistia ('Does Length Matter?') showed that for videos 30 seconds or less there was a more than 80% average view of that video with audience engagement at more than 60%.

A recent report on micro-content by Visual.ly ('The Marketer's Guide to Microconent') tells a similar story of the written word, noting that "Even on short-form platforms, brevity wins: Click-through rates on Twitter peak at between 120 and 130 characters, while Facebook posts with fewer than 70 characters receive the most likes."

Now for many types of stories and content campaigns, a tweet or Facebook post simply won't get you where you need to go. The story is too complex, and you need a longer-format video or a more comprehensive written piece. Here we can simply cross-apply the logic of the microcosmic example to a macro one: If shorter is better when you have only a sentence, then brevity and concision should apply when aggregating multiple sentences together. Simply put, for longer pieces, crisp, clean prose without Victorian floridity will help you get to the point quicker and help your audience retain that point and engage more dynamically.

And, if you believe as I do, that content marketing (especially visual content marketing) is not only the future but also the most effective in terms of getting meaningful, bottom-line conversions than the efforts described here truly are worth the time.

Finally, An Example

I recently tested my program on a marketing associate with this article in Planadviser Magazine: "Does Your Value Proposition Resonate." In short, this 800-word piece was all about how RIAs and DB/DC advisors can differentiate themselves from the crowd—the nut graph being that a strong value proposition is necessary to turn prospects to clients.

First, we wrote a 100-word summary: "A recent survey showed 60% of clients heard the same value proposition from investment advisors. In order to differentiate themselves, advisors must create a distinctive value proposition and show it through real-world examples that resonate with the client. To do this, advisors must first create core promises that they can uphold in the relationship. They must also create something that, in real-world terms, truly does make them different. Finally, the message itself must balance rational-emotional in such a way that it appeals to the appropriate client segment. If advisors do this, it can lead to a sustainable business model. "

Next, we took it down to about 30-words: "Want a sustainable business model? Differentiate. Sixty percent of clients are hearing the same value proposition from their investment advisors. To stand out, advisors must become truly distinctive, and then deliver on that distinctiveness.”

Finally, we broke it down to one 10-word sentence: "Advisors without a distinct value proposition are going extinct.”

A bit glib perhaps, but the exercise shows that in most any story there's really only one point that matters. Did you need to know that 60% of clients are hearing the same value proposition in order to make that point? Or can you cut the fat, leave a little mystery, and still tell a complete story?

Now, remember, writing for visually-oriented work (e.g. video) is very different from text, so when images are involved you can be even more brief. A good script for a 2-minute video story is 150 words or less.

Feel free to try this exercise and share the results—but remember, keep it short.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair

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N.B. Regarding certain quotations used on this site: I recognize the modern controversy following some of the quoted figures. I further recognize the potentially harmful beliefs these figures held in their time. In quoting them, it is not my intention to glorify or demonize. Rather, I cite their discrete thoughts, which represent a moment of interesting thinking, as separate from their total biography.

© Neil St. Clair, 2020-2025

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