Smart Brevity®: Power Up Productivity with Clearer Workplace Communications
January 11, 2023 | Webinar
Politico and Axios co-founder Mike Allen joined us for a master class in effective communication, featuring his bestselling new book, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less. In a world where attention spans are shrinking, reader habits are shifting and every inbox is slammed with messages, he showed us the Smart Brevity formula to break through and get your clients’, customers’ or colleagues’ attention and power productivity with clearer communications.
What did we learn? Here are the top takeaways from Smart Brevity®: Power Up Productivity with Clearer Workplace Communications, featuring Politico and Axios co-founder Mike Allen.
People do not read most of the words you write. Digital media demands brevity, yet the “fog of words” style from the days of the printed page persists online. Somewhere along the way “we mistook quantity for quality,” said Allen. “We took everything we had, put it on paper, printed it out and threw it at your house. What we realized when we got into the digital world… was that most of the words that we put so much effort into, that we think are so fancy, that we think are so insightful, people aren’t reading most of them.”
Swamped by a “firehose” of information, readers have become “skimmers” and “scanners.” “And this is why we all need to rethink our communications,” said Allen. “Lose the fluff,” keep communications “short, not shallow,” he suggested. Format your content for today’s readers who, studies show, skip blocks of text. Help them focus by using bullets and bolding important words. “We emphasize the key points with bold and bullets, numbers creating hierarchy, creating order… this helps guide your audience through the text.”
Win the war for attention by putting the needs of your audience first. “Think about who you’re trying to reach, whether it’s internal or external, and think to yourself, ‘what is going to resonate’,” Allen advised. While attention-getting formatting is important, he suggested that the “real magic” is not in the fact that you may use bolded text, bullets or data, but that you took the time to figure out what your audience wants to learn, and what you want them to do with the information you give them.
Roughly one-third of emails go unread, but following this formula can help ensure yours is not one of them. In his new, bestselling book, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less, Allen offers tips and tricks that, among other things, can “help make sure that your emails are read and, even more so, that people are going to act on them.” He shared the Smart Brevity® formula for your next email:
Start with a powerful subject line of 3 to 4 “sharp, short, punchy” attention-getting words. “If you get the subject line wrong, you might as well skip all the other words, because if people don’t open your email, it doesn’t matter how good or how clever it is. Our subject line tends to be an afterthought. If you want people to have the muscle memory to open your emails, be super intentional about the subject. Use strong words, words I can draw a picture from, words I can touch.”
Isolate one important point in your first sentence, and keep your email focused on that point. “The most that someone is going to take away from your lovingly written email is one thing. So just lean into that. Know what it is. Don’t throw eight things out there. There’s one thing. Figure out what that is. Just write it. Just put it at the top. Say, this is the one thing I want you to remember… and that will empower you.”
Give your point context and nuance, helping your audience understand why it should matter to them. “This is the communications version of ‘all politics is local.’ Why do I care about this? Relate to the person in the audience, and then you have some space to give some data, give some context, give some background, give some color, some key quotes. Give it context and nuance.”
Once you’ve made your point, give your audience a chance to go deeper. “Connect me to that original report. Connect me to an outside data set. Show me your work. Based on the data, we see very few people will click through, but the fact that it’s there shows that you’ve done your homework. They just like the idea that it’s there.”
Consistent, effective communication can help establish your value and authority within an organization. Being known as the person who always presents new information, brings clarity to issues and emphasizes the mission and higher purpose of the organization can be a great advantage. “Figure out the one thing that you want people to do or say, say it in a memorable, vivid way and you suddenly become infinitely, more disproportionately powerful, vital and effective within the organization.”
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JOAN WOODWARD: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I'm Joan Woodward, President of the Travelers Institute. Welcome to 2023 and our Wednesdays with Woodward webinar series, where we convene leading experts for conversations about today's biggest challenges.
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So, before we get started, I'd like to share our disclaimer about today's program. I'd also like to thank our webinar partners today: the MetroHartford Alliance, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, and we're thrilled to also partner with the Young Professionals and Allies Diversity Network, a wonderful group within our own Travelers community advocating for our young employees and helping them to advance their careers in the insurance industry. So thank you to all these groups. And we really appreciate you're here with us today.
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So now, let's get started. During the hour you're watching this webinar, how many emails, Slack messages, social media alerts, and text messages do you think you're going to get-- in one hour? How many work emails will you send today? Thanks to technology, we have access to so much information, and we're sharing and receiving more and more every day, even before. But we still only have the same amount of time to get our work done.
So the end result is that we're all overwhelmed. We're distracted, scattered, and just plain inundated. This includes our work and our personal lives. So here are a few stats from Smart Brevity, a book that we hope all of you will read, to really help this put it in context. And this is written by an author, Mike Allen, who is joining us today. And I'll introduce him formally in a moment.
So let's look at these stats. We spend seconds looking at messages, mere milliseconds on headlines to determine whether or not it's worth our time to read it. Roughly one-third of important work emails go unread. One-third of them go unread.
We check our phones on average 344 times every day. We share things on social media without even reading or watching them. So come on, you know you do this, right? Everyone does this. We don't read it, yet we think it's worthy, just by reading the title, to send it to someone else.
When reading, most of us are in a state of continuous partial attention. We have become, as Mike Allen will tell us, skimmers and scanners of information. It's the natural evolution of information consumption in this digital age and information-sharing age we're in.
Communications is more critical than ever before to business today, both internal and external communications. The CEO of Slack told Smart Brevity team that more than half of the average employee’s time is spent on communication of some sort, and a lot are communicating like it's 1980 still.
How do we get our employees, our colleagues, our customers, and clients to pay attention? Whether it's an email, a presentation, a social media post? Lucky for us, today we have an expert with us who is going to share some tips and tricks to help get our messages heard. And it starts with really adapting to how people consume content.
Text, Speakers. Photos of Joan Woodward, Executive Vice President, Public Policy; President, Travelers Institute, Travelers, and Mike Allen, Co-founder, Politico; Co-founder, Axios; Co-author, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less.
Mike Allen is the co-author of Smart Brevity, which Arianna Huffington called the Strunk and White of the digital age. That's The Elements of Style book we all grew up on. He's Co-founder of Axios, where the Smart Brevity writing style was born.
He also co-founded Politico, where he started the morning newsletter, Politico Playbook. Before that he was a journalist at Time magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Mike, welcome.
MIKE ALLEN: Well, thank you very much, Joan, Madam President. And thank you to you and your team, Jenny, the whole team, for hosting us. And congratulations on this great platform that you've built. In hard times for the country and the world, you've built something really cool. So thanks for including us.
JOAN WOODWARD: Oh, well, thank you so much for that. So Mike, let's just start. Tell us how this book and the writing style really came about. I mean, you've been a journalist for many, many years.
And writing, as we all grew up in college and in high school, you get a professor to say, write that 30-page paper. And so, we all been trained in our formal education that you have to write a certain amount of words or a certain number of pages to make your case. But how did this brevity style come about?
MIKE ALLEN: Joan, you're 100% right that we mistook quantity for quality. And I was one of the worst offenders. I don't know if this is supposed to be a confessional. But I was a newspaper reporter. And so, what did I do? I inflicted words on you. I came up through the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star in Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Washington Post, New York Times. And what did we do? We produced words.
And at The Post there was even a term for it. They called it a notebook dump. And the notebook dump was we took everything we had, and we put it on paper, printed it out, threw it at your house. And what we realized when we got into the digital world, first at Politico and now it Axios, was that no one was reading most of those words.
And I'm going to hit on a couple of points that I'm going to call gravity. And gravity is just-- it doesn't matter if you want to believe it or not, it's just true. And it is a fact that most of what all of us write, most of the words that we put so much effort to, that we think are so fancy, that we think are so insightful, people aren't reading most of them.
And that's the secret of Smart Brevity is that in this conversation today and our book, Smart Brevity, we're going to give you recipes, formulas, tips, tricks for having people read more of those beautiful words that you write, and type, and share, and put on decks, and put out on Zooms, and help you win the war for attention-- a war that's being fought on our phones, and on our Zoom meeting screens, on podcasts. And Smart Brevity will help you cut through that fog of words.
JOAN WOODWARD: Great. Thank you for that intro. Mike, we like to turn the tables on our audience and ask them a few questions just to get a sense of how they're doing in their daily lives and work. So we're going to ask the audience two questions now.
First one, how much of your work time every day is spent reading or writing emails? Just on email. How much of your work time during the day is spent reading or writing emails? Some, most of the day, or all of the day? [LAUGHS] That would be bad, all of the day writing emails to each other.
MIKE ALLEN: Joan's already judging you if you're going to say, all.
JOAN WOODWARD: That's right. So come on, people. [LAUGHS] Let's hope there's not a lot of us that spend all day long doing that. Let's cut it off here. We have almost 2,000 responses. And sad to say, Mike, it looks like most people spend most of their day-- 60% of our audience says, most of their day is spent writing emails and reading emails. What do you think of that?
MIKE ALLEN: I think that that is reality, and Smart Brevity to the rescue. Help is on the way, because we can help you make sure that your emails are read, and even more so, the people are going to act on them.
I'll tell you a quick story about that, that you will find in our book Smart Brevity. And that is-- there's coming to you from Axios HQ in Arlington, Virginia, very close to where we are, not far from McLean, for Jenny and others who are listening.
Not far from here, in Falls Church, Virginia, there was a middle school teacher that I talked to who would write emails to his parents-- important updates, things that he needed them to do, wanted them to do, changes in the schedule, things that they needed to know.
And he thought his parents must be dumb. Because he would send an email, and they would write back. And they would ask him the exact things that were answered in the email. I'm sure that's not happened-- never happened to anyone who's on this Zoom.
And he-- I didn't know him. But he read my morning newsletter, Axios AM, and he saw the Smart Brevity style. Going back years, that Axios now six years old, we've had the Smart Brevity style from day one, and have evolved it, learn from it, so that we can have those learnings here in our book.
And he saw that in Axios AM we emphasized the key points with bold and with bullets, numbers creating hierarchy, creating order, helping point the audience to the key points. And he was like, ah, I kind of like that. I'll try it.
And so, he did that with his parents, and voila! All of a sudden, his parents got smarter. They suddenly weren't asking him the questions that he-- asked him things that he'd already answered in the email.
And here's the learning for you, and here's the actionable point for every single person who's joining us today. And that is that the magic was not in the fact that he used bold, or that he used bullets, or that he used numbers.
The magic was that he took the time to figure out what is it that I want these parents to know? What is the most important thing? What do I want them to do? And he highlighted that. And it was the fact that he had spent the time to do it that resulted in the action that he wanted.
So that's going to be our first takeaway, which is, if you think about this Zoom, if you think about a podcast, if you think about an email, if you think about a report, if you think about a sermon, any piece of content, if you think about it, if you have one takeaway, if you learn one thing, that's a win.
Think of how many pieces of content we interact with every day where we get nothing from it. It just floats off into the ether. If you go to an industry meeting, if you're on a Zoom, and you learn one thing, boom. That's awesome.
So Smart Brevity flips that and says, it is just reality. Here's a second piece of gravity. A second piece of gravity, A, people aren't reading most of our words. But a second piece is, the most that someone is going to take away from your beautiful report, from your awesome Zoom, from your lovingly written email, is one thing.
And so, just lean into that. Know what it is. Instead-- don't let them pick. Don't throw eight things out there. There's one thing. Figure out what that is. Just write it. Just put it at the top. That's the hack. Just say it up top if it's a Zoom. And say, this is the one thing I want you to remember. This is the one thing I want you to do. And that will empower you.
And the beautiful thing about this is, it doesn't matter if you're the intern or if you're Madam President, that if you follow these tips and this approach, that you will be heard. You will have more power within your organization and within the people that you're interacting with.
JOAN WOODWARD: That is very well said-- very well said. And I remember getting-- I have four kids, Mike. And I remember getting all those emails from all those teachers all the years. And it's like, a sea of what do I really need to know and pay attention to. So it was wonderful you helped that teacher.
Next audience question, let's see how this one goes. So what percentage of emails do you skip or delete without reading? What percentage of your emails do you skip or just delete without reading them at all. So first one, I read all of my emails. I can't believe anybody would check that. But OK.
MIKE ALLEN: No, Joan, you're totally wrong. We're going to have a bunch of inbox heroes on this call, I just know it.
JOAN WOODWARD: OK. All right. And how about more than 50%? Looks like what percentage of emails do you skip or delete? It looks like to me-- it's going to come in around 20% is the answer. What do you think of this, Mike? So 20% of emails most people aren't reading.
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah, I told you. You should listen to me. A fifth of people are inbox heroes. I just knew it.
JOAN WOODWARD: Wow. 20% of us read all our emails. Is that a waste of time, Mike?
MIKE ALLEN: Well, sure. And it's not our fault. It's because of the approach that people take with our emails. And here's a way to make sure that you are in other people's 100%, to make sure that when you send an email, people answer it. And that starts with the subject line.
And you'll find that Smart Brevity, in addition to talking through our theory and approaches to this, is super practical and super actionable. And so, I'm going to really zoom in and be super practical for a second and talk about the subject line.
Now, one thing that we tell our reporters is, if you think about it, if you get the subject line wrong, you might as well skip all the other words. Because if people don't open your email, it doesn't matter how good it is, or how clever it is, or how great your reporting is.
But our subject line tends to be an afterthought. We put all our time in on the email. And then right before we send it, we might drop in a subject line.
Whereas Smart Brevity teaches you, if you want to be in that 100%, if you want people to have the muscle memory to open your emails, be super intentional about the subject line. And the reason that we suggest in the book, Smart Brevity, three or four words in your subject line is that that's the real estate that you have right here. That's what people are going to see on your phone.
And so, I pay very close attention, whether it's one of my newsletters, whether it's something I'm sending to my boss, whether it's something I'm sending to my colleagues. I pay super close attention to what are those three or four words. And if it's a super important email, I'll even send it to myself so I see what it looks like in the phone and know how I'm going to win that war for attention.
And so, we know that we're focused on those three or four words because anything else is a waste. They won't see it. And those three words, you want them to be as powerful as they can be. And we talk in Smart Brevity about strong words.
And what's a strong word? A strong word is something that I can visualize, that's visible, that I can touch. A weak word is an abstract word like policy, situation, challenges. These words that we love in journalese, legalese, policy-ese, corporate-ese. But they aren't words that we use in human conversation. So three short, sharp, punchy, strong words.
And a little story about this, Joan, that goes back to the very beginning of my journalistic career. When I was a cub reporter just out of school working at the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, they were kind to include me in a writing seminar with one of the most famous writing coaches in America. She was from The Dallas Morning News, Paula LaRocque. And she loved what she did. She was awesome at what she did.
And she had a whole roomful of up-and-coming whippersnappers like myself. And she read us a passage. And this was now 30 years ago. I remember it super vividly. It was about a fish going around a rock.
And I could picture it in my mind's eye. It was a lovely piece of writing, very vivid. And Paula LaRocque said to this roomful of young smart alecks like myself, what was distinctive about this passage? What made this passage different?
And nobody got it. And the answer was that every single word that she had read to us was one syllable. And there's a real learning in that, that the one syllable words, punch, sharp, strong, tend to be strong, memorable, strong words that are going to really break through.
And so, when I'm-- especially when I'm writing a subject line, a headline, the top of a report, every word that's three syllables I see if I can make it two syllables. If anything that's one syllable-- that's two syllables, I see if I can make it one syllable, because I'm going to be making it stronger.
I'm going to be making it more vivid, more likely that it's a word that I can draw a picture of, that I can touch, that I can taste. That's going to be a stronger word than your challenges, your policies, and your longer, vaguer words that we tend to use.
So to recap here, subject line, three or four words, because that's the space that we have. And use that space to its best advantage by using strong words, words that I can picture, words that I can draw a picture of, words that I can touch. And if something's three syllables, I'm going to try to make it two. If it's two, I'm going to make it one. And that's going to be a subject line that's going to leap out of my inbox.
And, Joan, before we leave this, I'll tell you a little story. Tina Brown, one of the most famous editors ever to live, she had something when she wanted you to really read her email. And if you get an email from Tina Brown, you're probably going to open it. But she would have a one-word subject line. And the one word was You. Everybody's going to open that, 100% open rate.
JOAN WOODWARD: You. Got it. Got it. Because everyone wants to know, what do you think about me?
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah.
JOAN WOODWARD: So your partner Jim VandeHei recently said, every business-- I'm going to quote, "Every business, nonprofit, and organization in the world needs to rethink how it communicates to its employees, donors, and customers, and shareholders." So tell us why, or in Axios, you like to say, tell us why it matters.
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. Why it matters is that the world has changed before us. That six years ago when Jim and Roy and I were thinking of starting Axios, and we were traveling around the world talking to people exactly like the people on this call, smart, curious professionals who need trustworthy efficient information in their life and work.
When we were traveling around asking them for their pain points in information consumption, there were two things that we heard. And these were the germs of Smart Brevity. And this is how-- this is why we all need to rethink our communications.
One, the fire hose. Just too much. More awesome information but also more junk. And that was six years ago. Imagine how much worse that fire hose has gotten. Imagine how your inbox has changed. Imagine how the lock screen of your phone has changed over the last six years.
And the second thing we heard again and again, even in academia, which surprised me, and this was the germ of Smart Brevity, was if I put something aside to read later, I never do. The New Yorkers pile up. Our pocket fills up. The browser tab's open. And we never go back.
And so, the magic of Smart Brevity is, it helps you make people smarter in real time. That if someone is used to saying, oh, I'll read Joan's email later. I'll come back to that. We know what's going to happen.
And so, that's why I talk about this muscle memory of the people will see your email, they'll know, I'm going to get something out of this. This is going to make one point that's going to make my life better. It's going to tell me one thing I really need to know. It has urgency. It is asking me to do one thing, or it's telling me one thing that's going to make my life or work better.
And if people get used to that, then they'll open your emails and act on them. And that's what empowers you as a communicator, no matter where you're at in the ladder of the organization.
Whereas the opposite, think of the people who have the reputation of emails that are just words, like long report, things that maybe there's a point in there, maybe there's not. But I'm not going to find it. And those are the emails that go unread, or those are the emails that if you're a boss around there maybe they'll say, oh, I'll come back to that. But they ain't going to. And so, that volume is what's changing the way that we communicate.
And here's another one. The fact that we're all on Zoom, that we're all scattered, that so many of us are now working from anywhere. If your organization has even one person who works remotely, you need to radically rethink how you communicate.
Because when we're communicating on a Zoom, it tends to be much more transactional. We hop on and we talk about one particular thing. And the higher purpose of what we're doing, the mission of the organization, the things that are important to the leaders there are less likely to be communicated than they were if we were all in person.
Somebody the other day used a term for me that I hadn't heard before. And they talked about a drive-by. And a drive-by is when you catch someone at the beginning or at the end of a meeting as you leave or go. Much less likely to happen on a Zoom because we all get in, hop on, we all do whatever we got on to do. We all wave, and we say goodbye.
And we've not picked up some of those intangibles that are so important to running an organization, whether it's a nonprofit, whether it's a college, whether it's a government, whether it's an office, whether it is a company, whether it is a firm. And so, we have to be intentional about that, know that we need to communicate our priorities, our goals, our mission.
Smart Brevity will help you do that because it's not going to be buried in a bunch of words about something else that we're going to say. Here's our higher purpose. Here's our mission. Here's what's important. Here's what you should know this week. You do the work for the audience. Do the work on the front end.
Think about audience first. What do I want the people on the other end to do, remember, or internalize. And figure it out. Say it clearly. Say it sharply. Say it vividly. Say it memorably. And the hack-- I told you earlier-- the trade secret, just put it up top, because that's where they're going to read it.
JOAN WOODWARD: Great. Great. I want to get into the book a little bit more. In Smart Brevity you talk about a formula core four. So it's for scanners and skimmers--
MIKE ALLEN: Which is all of us.
JOAN WOODWARD: --all of us. So what are those four elements, many of which we see at Axios? So tell us about the Core 4 when you're thinking about writing. Because as you talk about the audience, a lot of our business leaders on the call today, we have employees.
And so, we want to communicate directly to employees that's impactful. But then, we also have the external stakeholders, and understanding that audience and who you're speaking to. But how does the basic-- your Core 4 play out in those scenarios?
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. Thank you. And just to unpack audience first for a little bit is to think about who it is you're trying to reach, whether it's internal or external. And thinking to yourself, what's going to resonate with them? If I'm in their shoes, what's going to matter to them?
And that's why I socialize my emails with the group. Before I send something to a large group, I talk to some of the important stakeholders there and get their feedback on my format and how I'm expressing it. Because this can be very generational. There can be emojis that I might use to my leadership team, and other parts of my organization might find it kind of cringe.
And you don't want to get that wrong. And it's better to get it wrong with two or three people that you trust who are part of your kitchen cabinet, who advise you, that you stress-test, Guinea-pig your communications with, as opposed to having it go to hundreds of people. So that's audience first.
But just to dive in real quick to the Core 4. And this is a very actionable useful format that's in the book that works for any type of organization. And it's been implicit in some of the things that we've been talking about today.
But the Core 4, you start with what's new? What's that one thing? I want you-- I have one big idea. I have one important point. What is it? And I've spent the time to think about it, isolate it. What is it? What's new? They're always the holy grail.
If you and I were to sit down and have coffee, or Irish coffee, or chips and salsa, if we were sitting together, what would we start out? Tell me something I don't know. What's new? Always the holy grail of a conversation.
Second, why it matters. This is the communications version of all politics is local. I used to work at Time magazine. And the way that we said it there is, why aren't we invited to this party? Why do I care about this? And so, relate it to the person in the audience.
And then, you have some space to give some data by the numbers, give some context, give some background, give some color, some key quotes. Because a very important point that we can talk more about in a separate question is-- a very important point about Smart Brevity is it is short, not shallow. That if you're doing Smart Brevity right, you don't have to lose context or nuance.
What we're losing is fluff and padding and words that actually dilute or confuse our point. But if we're doing Smart Brevity right, it's actually the opposite of losing context or nuance, that we actually will say it more clearly and sharply.
So the Core 4, what's new, why it matters, give me some data, give me some background, give me some key points. And then, the fourth part of the Core 4 is go deeper. Connect me to that original report. Connect me to an outside data set. Show me your work. I can tell you, based on the data, that we see very few people will click that. But the fact that it's there, A, shows them that you've done your homework.
JOAN WOODWARD: Right.
MIKE ALLEN: Or B, I think they just like the idea that it's there. So, one sentence. What's new? One sentence. Why it matters. Give me some backup. Give me some data. Give me some color. Give me some quotes. And then give me the power to go deeper. That Core 4 is a very powerful formula for communications, whether it's internal, or whether it's external, whatever kind of an organization it is.
JOAN WOODWARD: This is great stuff, Mike. Let's keep going. So you in Axios uses bold, and you use bullets for structure. You also talk about axioms, by the numbers, one big thing, what's happening, reality check. You use emojis sometimes. Let's dig through that. How many people should be using lots of bold, bullets, emojis, et cetera?
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. Those can really help you. And so, I'm going to give you a third piece of gravity. And these are things that you may not believe them, but they just are true no matter what. The first one was that most people don't read most of what we write. The second one was that at best, from any given piece of content, people are going to remember one thing that you say or ask them to do.
And the third piece of gravity, just reality, you don't have to believe in it, but good luck to you if you don't believe in gravity. The third one is that when people come to a block of text-- and for the book, Smart Brevity, we delved into a lot of neurological studies, eye-tracking studies, a lot of research that had been done.
When people encounter a big block of text, they skip it. It doesn't matter how much work you put into it. It doesn't matter how profound it is. If we see a sea of words, that big old notebook dump that we used to see inside the Sunday paper, we skip it.
And so, what bolding, bullets, some of these other devices that you'll see spelled out in Smart Brevity do for you is they help get us away from the big glob of text that we know people are going to skip and break it up in ways that are digestible, that will stick in their mind.
So a couple of ways that you can do this is knowing what your key points are. Put them in bold. Separate out your key data points with bullets. Number them, give them some hierarchy. And emojis can help show your audience you've really thought it through. So the emojis are not decoration. The way that we teach you to use them in Smart Brevity, they help guide your audience through the text.
So if I want to get specific about something, I'll say zoom in and I might put a microscope emoji. Or if I want to give the big picture, I'll say zoom out, and I might put a telescope. Or for the big picture, I might put a picture frame by the numbers, have a little wit, have a little fun. Delight is an important part of Smart Brevity. For by the numbers, I'll put an abacus, just because it's fun, but we know what it is.
And what do all those things do? Yes, they break up the text. They get us away from a sea of words that we know people are going to skip. But they also signal to the audience, I respect your intelligence. I respect your time. And I've thought through how I've structured this email, or this report, or this update. And it is short, not shallow. It actually gives you more than a report that's just got tons of words.
I went to-- the other day I went to visit one of the leading communications firms here in D.C. And they said that when they were-- after they had a long report and they were going to make it up in final form, and they would look for a pull quote, some quotes to highlight out of the report, and they would find that there weren't any. There wasn't anything that was interesting enough to pull out.
By the time you're trying to make up your report, it's too late. That's why we think on the-- in Smart Brevity, we teach you, show you, take you by the hand to figure it out on the front end so that you will be able to produce something that people are going to want to read.
And a tool to do that is bulleting, bolds, the emojis you mentioned. But those are the means, not the end. That the key to Smart Brevity is thinking through what you want to say. Knowing what-- thinking about the audience. Isolating what you're going to say, and then saying it, and using some of these tools to get people away from that huge block of text.
One more quick story about that that we have in the book, Smart Brevity, is there was a book-- excuse me, there was a minister in Alexandria, Virginia, David Glade. And he shared with his congregation some life advice that he'd given his kids.
And the advice boiled down to do the next right thing. And his thinking was, we can't change our past. We don't really know what's coming down the road. All we can do is make the decision that makes sense and is the right thing with the information we have. That's obviously good advice.
But the point of it, the reason that I highlight it here is the magic of do the next right thing is, you're not just going to sit at a laptop and type that. That came from a lot of thought. It came from study. It came from research and then boiling it down.
And that's what Smart Brevity does, is have the conversation, do the work, do the research. We tell people, think, don't type. Think before you type. Talk before you type. Have conversations. And then, when you go to communicate what you have to say, it's going to be important, going to be clear. And some of those tools that you mentioned can help you get it across.
JOAN WOODWARD: Great. I really like the examples. I think they're real life. And so, maybe tell us how you worked-- I know you've been working with British Petroleum to incorporate Smart Brevity into their communication strategy. So give us a story there and how it's worked out there.
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. And I think that lots of the companies who are joining us today will see this, that BP was a pioneer in using Smart Brevity. They got our newsletters. They saw how powerful they were. They knew that their execs liked to get information in the Axios format in Smart Brevity. And they said, oh, let's us try that too.
And so, we worked with them. And that, a little bit, was a germ of the book, because we realized, oh, Smart Brevity can help other people. We've been applying it to a media company. But other people can learn from it too.
So it was with BP. We worked with them and helped them turn their daily communications into Smart Brevity. Started first just with the leadership team, the executive team, the CEO’s direct reports, and then grew it to their team, grew it to the headquarters, and eventually grew it to all BP employees around the world.
And a couple of things happened. One was the open rates for their internal communications skyrocketed. Because most of our internal communications just is done in old ways, done in ways that don't get the result that we want.
But they developed that muscle memory. People saw, ah, these emails are going to tell me something important that's going on in my organization. It's from my boss. I'm going to know what's important to them. I'm going to be more fluent in what we're doing.
And therefore, I'm going to be more powerful within the organization. This is going to help me get ahead. Who's not going to open that email? And because they learned about that format, they learned to open those emails.
But here's something else magical that happened. Geoff Morell, who was the BP executive who brought Smart Brevity in was-- he saw-- and recently joined Teneo, who was a former ABC News correspondent. I knew him when he covered President Bush and then became the Pentagon Press Secretary. So he'd worn lots of hats and knew the importance of clear, powerful communication.
And within the organization, he became a seer. He became an innovator. Other parts of the company, other functions in the company wanted to write in Smart Brevity because they saw that it was getting the attention of the CEO. That it was getting the attention of the board.
And they saw that this was a future-oriented way to communicate. That because of the way that all of our lives are changing, whether it's because of Zoom, whether it's because of remote work, whether it's because of the volume of emails that we get.
With all those things changing, if you can be the person within your organization who's going to communicate in an innovative powerful way, then suddenly you are going to have more power. People are going to say, I want to see how to do that. I want to learn from that. I want to do that too.
And just a little handy dandy and actionable item for people who are having trouble convincing a boss, or peer, or a client that this is a great way to communicate. I would just say, at first, do it both ways. Show them the long way, the report, where you can barely find a pull quote.
And then show them in Smart Brevity something that finds the exciting, actionable, useful, game-changing, life-changing, world-changing points, and highlights them. And put them next to each other. And just say to them, what would you respond to? What would you-- make a difference to you?
One more quick story, if I may, Joan, from our Smart Brevity experience. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, does an annual shareholder letter. And Jamie Dimon has thoughts on lots of things, whether it's China, whether it's cryptocurrency, whether it's the consumer balance sheet. He's got lots of thoughts. And they all want to do a shareholder letter, which is extremely well read on Wall Street, but is scores of pages.
And so, we took that letter for JPMorgan Chase and put it into Smart Brevity so that they could send it to some of their stakeholders. And it created a whole new audience for this longer letter that was very well read on Wall Street but hadn't penetrated other parts of the culture. And suddenly, they were seen as pioneers in communication.
So the same thing will happen to you, your office. If you communicate in Smart Brevity, other people are going to say to you, I want that.
JOAN WOODWARD: I think this is great. This is great for all of us. We have a number of questions coming in, Mike. I want to get to all of them, because so many of what you already talked about are coming in to us, especially about how to try getting our colleagues to adopt Smart Brevity, or those who just send paragraph upon paragraph. So I know you've given some advice there.
I want to talk about one thing you said in the book, that the Smart Brevity way of writing and communicating can be much more inclusive. And so, this is a high priority for a lot of us in business today, diversity, inclusion. And so, how is it that Smart Brevity is more inclusive?
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. A key point that we make in the book-- and I appreciate your asking about this, Joan-- is if you aren't communicating inclusively, you aren't communicating effectively. And Smart Brevity could actually help with more inclusive communication.
Diversity, equity, inclusion have been hallmarks, pillars of the Axios culture from day one. And Smart Brevity can help you with that because it strips away a lot of the fancy complications that we used to put around our communication and just speaks clearly in the way that I would speak to a human.
One thing that-- one part of the power of Smart Brevity is that it's conversational. I mentioned what if we were having chips and salsa together? When I'm talking to you in person over a drink or over breakfast, there are social cues that keep me from being boring.
I don't use what my Grandma Powers would call $10 words, fancy words, SAT words. I don't repeat myself, hopefully. I don't tell you things that you already know. If you were sitting in person, if you start to zone out, I can sense that.
And so, when we're sitting in person, I'm not going to use fancy words. I'm not going to complicate it. I'm not going to say it in ways that make me seem smart and make you feel unsure about what I'm trying to say, because I want you to like me. I want you to have breakfast with me again.
And yet-- and I think that this will resonate with everyone on this call-- when we sit at a keyboard, we do all those things. And professional people who are paid to be good writers are the worst at it. When we sit at a keyboard, we tend to use those fancy words. We tend to repeat ourselves. We tend to layer in background that you maybe already know.
The other day, one of our reporters used the word, aforementioned. And I'm like, if we were sitting in a bar, you're not going to use the word aforementioned.
JOAN WOODWARD: [LAUGHS] No. Never. Never in my bar days did I say aforementioned.
MIKE ALLEN: Right. And so, if we're going to try to communicate inclusively, and if we're going to think about all the kinds of diversity across our organization, being able to say what we really mean, say it clearly, say it in a way that is accessible to everyone, all of those are hallmarks of inclusive communication. And I just, to underscore, if you're not communicating inclusively, you're not communicating effectively.
JOAN WOODWARD: That is great, Mike. So a couple of questions around sales. And a lot of people are in the sales business here. How do you think about the sales roles and jobs with Smart Brevity?
MIKE ALLEN: This must be a setup, because this is one of my favorite--
JOAN WOODWARD: No, it's not. These are real questions. A lot of people are in sales.
MIKE ALLEN: This is one of my favorite topics about Smart Brevity. All right.
JOAN WOODWARD: OK.
MIKE ALLEN: So, the Smart Brevity book has 28,002 words in it. And those-- some of you on this call read Axios newsletters, which we appreciate. And at the top of every Axios newsletter, we say Smart Brevity count, and we give the number of words and the number of minutes.
So, for instance, at the top of my newsletter in the morning, Axios AM, is typically 1,200 words, which is 4 1/2 minutes. I'll say at the top, Smart Brevity count, 1,200 words, 4 1/2 minutes. The Smart Brevity book, 28,002 words. Those two words-- because our partner in this, Workman, has been a fantastic publisher for us-- they told us that was the minimum number of words that you need to put it between hardcovers and sell it on smartbrevity.com.
But those two words could boil down to-- and this is going to be very useful to you in sales. The two words that I'd love for you to take away are just stop. So in the sales context, I will watch someone who's a good salesperson, and they have a good product. And they're actually doing well with their prospect. But I read the body language of the other person. And the prospect is sold. They're ready to sign.
But what happens? We keep talking. It is our-- just nature as humans, we just keep talking. And if the person would have just stopped, they would have walked away with an order. But they raised so many questions by keeping talking, that finally the person-- the prospect says, I'll think about it. And if they would have just stopped, they would have made that sale.
An example of asking for a raise. When we ask for a raise, we tend to say, ah, I know times are hard. I know you have a lot on your plate. I know we have a lot going on. I know we're cutting back. No. If you want to ask for a raise, know your value. Say, as Mika Brzezinski would tell us, say, this is what I've done. This is what I'm going to do. This is my value.
And then, just stop. And that's going to be much more effective than backing into it and giving them lots of outs. Because if you give them an out, they'll take it-- just say what your value is. Say what you're asking. And then just stop. So those two words, just stop, can be very powerful in sales and in any kind of interpersonal communication.
JOAN WOODWARD: Got it. Got it. Another question coming in. We've got a number of these. Sometimes if I'm short and brief and don't give a long explanation, I sound cold, or uncaring, or just blunt. And sometimes especially for women-- this one woman is writing in-- we can't get away with that. Maybe a man could possibly get away with that. But being blunt or too terse, or those kinds of worries.
Because in our culture we like to say, thank you so much, and then email back, no worries, no problem, all those distracting things that can be left unsaid. But we want to be polite. And so, what do you do with a coworker who's constantly, thank you so much. Did you have a good weekend-- the fluff. The fluff, but the polite fluff that is expected in our culture, in our society, at work. How do you think about that?
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. That is a very smart question. I'm glad you asked it. And Smart Brevity actually leans into that, that every single thing that I've said during the 46 minutes that we've been talking is about being conversational, about being human, about being warm, about communicating as a human the way that I would want someone to communicate respectfully to me, not as a robot.
And so, the fact that I've thought through the one thing that I want them to remember, the fact that I'm being respectful of their time, the fact that I'm saying it the way that I would say it if I were talking to you in person, all of that leans into that humanity, leans into that warmth, and does not come across as curt or blunt. The fluff makes us feel good, but it doesn't do anything.
There was an ugly Christmas sweater this year that said, I hope you're doing well in these tough times. We just type that. But that doesn't do anything for us. That makes us feel better, but it doesn't do anything. What if that person has just gotten terrible news in their life? Having that filler, that fluff, doesn't do anything to make them feel better or to make me sympathize or empathize with them.
Whereas if I start politely, warmly, we greet them as we would a human, and just say what we want to say, and then thank them for their time. One of the big reasons that we put the number of words and the number of minutes at the top is to say to our reader, I'm being respectful of your time. I know exactly what I'm asking of you. I'm not going to waste your time. I'm not going to waste your intelligence. And I'm not going to insult your intelligence.
And one very actionable approach that I think will assuage the people who are concerned that this could look cold, or blunt, or too sharp, which none of us want because none of that leads to effective communication. None of that leads to people doing what you want. None of that empowers you.
But the route to being warm, human, respectful, conversational, which is at the root of every single point that I've made during this call, is-- and this is-- so I'm going to take my own advice.
If you remember one thing from our conversation today, if you remember one thing from this Zoom webinar, if you remember one thing from Wednesdays with Woodward today, it is this. And that is, anything that comes out of your office, out of your laptop, out of your organization, read it out loud. If something's going to come out under your name, whether you've written it, or somebody's written it for you, read it out loud.
And what is the magic of that? We instantly catch ourselves if we sound like a robot, if we sound too curt, or too cold. We catch ourselves if we're using those $10 SAT words. We catch ourselves if we are being long-winded or complex. And people love clauses. People love phrases. Whereas the human mind likes subject, verb, object. Clear, muscular communication.
Funny story about this. We got a test of a newsletter. And luckily, it was not-- the newsletter was not out in the wild. This was an internal test. And I called one of the editors. And I said, I know a secret. I said, the secret is that you did not read the lead of this newsletter out loud. He said, well, how do you know? I said, because if you read this out loud, there would be paramedics there trying to revive you because you would be so out of breath.
And so, if we read something out loud, we instantly realize how it's coming across, whether it's being effective. And a couple things. One is, if you aren't really sure what it's saying-- spoiler alert-- 0% of your stakeholders, internal or external, will know what you're trying to say if you're not sure.
And here's another thing. If you start to bore yourself, no chance that your communication is going to be effective with the people who are trying to get to it. So human, respectful, warm, conversational, it's all the opposite of the robotic, cold approach.
And it's not because of the fluff. The fluff does nothing for us. People just read over it. Instead, we say, we're going to respect your time. And I'm going to talk to you exactly the way I would talk to you if we were having breakfast together.
JOAN WOODWARD: And I think, back in the old days, Mike, when we started our careers, we didn't have computers. We weren't emailing. And so, we're constantly picking up the phone and calling people. And there's a generational thing now among our employees, our younger employees. Picking up a phone and calling someone if the email communication is not clear or it's not getting to the desired response.
I mean, how do you think about, say we're not using Smart Brevity in our communications currently in an organization that may be listening in. And our older employees, such as me, would say to a younger employee, just call that person. Just get on the phone and let's get this done, because the email communication has been clunky or not has done the job.
How do you think about that when you talk generationally to our younger employees about pick up the phone because the email is not working?
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. And that's something that doesn't come naturally to my nieces and nephews.
JOAN WOODWARD: Yes.
MIKE ALLEN: So I would frame it in terms of effectiveness, that you can pick a role. Anytime you've gone back and forth three times probably at the most on an email, if it's possible to pick it up, the phone, do it, because you're losing nuance. We start to talk to each other on emails in ways that we would not talk to people in person.
And this is where you get the danger that we were talking about earlier, where it can come off as robotic, or argumentative, or can come off in ways that we don't understand. And that can be a diversity, equity, and inclusion issue that we're coming from a different frame of reference. We may have a blind spot. And talking to that person as a human rather than over Slack or email can help bridge that.
So it's not always possible. But most of the time, especially internally, it is possible to pick up the phone. And the way that I would phrase it to someone that I was trying to make this case to is say, I would do it this way because. This will help you have more power in this interaction because. This can help you get to yes because.
And it's all about an email can let us talk past each other. It can let us be passive aggressive. It can let us be aggressive aggressive.
And whereas if we're talking on a phone, those human cues that help us communicate more effectively for the ways that we've talked about over coffee, Irish coffee, chips and salsa, breakfast, whatever you want your interaction to be, if we do that on the phone, it can save us time and it can get us what we want.
JOAN WOODWARD: Got it. So Mike, you've had this amazing career, including founding these two powerhouse media companies. So tell us about this world we're living in now with so many organizations, so much news and content. What has made Axios succeed in your view, and what's next?
MIKE ALLEN: Yeah. Thank you, Joan, for that question. And what's made Axios succeed is my now 500, 600 colleagues, every person who's walked through this building. Something that Jim VandeHei, Roy Schwartz and I, the three co-founders of Axios and the three co-authors of Smart Brevity, something we've been intentional about from the beginning is we've said, we want this to be the very best place for the very best people to work.
And the beauty of this book, Smart Brevity, which you can get on smartbrevity.com, is that it's the fruits and learnings of all of those colleagues. That Smart Brevity, when we started six years ago, almost to the day, six years ago, the month, January, in January 2023-- we started in January 2017-- that we've learned a lot. And we've learned from each other.
And whether it's our visuals colleagues with their incredible illustrations and data visuals, or whether it's a young editor on the news desk who spots a better way to say something, zoom in, zoom out. Whether it's something that we've learned from trial and error of sending scores of newsletter every week.
All of the learnings from that come into Smart Brevity, the book. And I would boil it down to audience first, thinking about the other person, be conversational, read it out loud. All of those will be cues that will help you converse conversationally.
What's next? Smart Brevity is going to be even more vital. Our inboxes are just going to get fuller. The fog of words around us is just going to get worse. And it's funny. I was just having a conversation this morning with a week one Axios colleague. We were walking back from breakfast here in Arlington, Virginia.
And I was saying to them, the fact that there is so much junk out there, the fact that there is so much pollution out there, that actually is an opening, an opportunity, for your organization and for ours. And that is, if your office, if your function within your organization becomes known as a place that's going to bring clarity, that emphasizes the mission and higher purpose of the organization, that figures out the one thing that you want people to do or say, that says it in a memorable, vivid way, you suddenly become infinitely more-- disproportionately powerful, vital, effective-- within that organization. Because you're going to be an island oasis in this fog of words.
And so, Smart Brevity, audience first, talk don't type, think it through, talk it through, communicate inclusively, know what your blind spots are, stress-test your communications with others in your organizations, those approaches not only will make you a cleaner and more effective communicator, but it also will make you someone within your organization that people look to as an innovator and somebody who is the place to turn for what's next.
JOAN WOODWARD: Mike, I cannot imagine a better way to kick off our year with our webinar series with you today, because I think this is what we try to be is the place people go to to learn and figure out ways to better their personal and their professional lives. And this has just been an amazing session today. So I really want to thank you.
And I urge everyone who hasn't read it-- we have given out the number of books. But do get the Smart Brevity book. Because-- I've got to find my copy-- I got to tell you, over the holidays, my four kids read all this. And even the ones who had to write those 30-page papers for law school found value in this. So thank you, Mike, so much. We're so grateful for your kicking off our year with us. And we want to be that go-to place.
And the other thing, as I told you earlier, my CEO said to us, just don't be boring, which I think is another way to think about how we communicate in our daily lives. Be the go-to person in your organization, right?
MIKE ALLEN: I love that. And thank you for the thoughtful questions. I really enjoyed this conversation. Joan, to you and your team, congratulations on building a very cool platform. On smartbrevity.com we have some free tips, free data for you to look at on smartbrevity.com. And so I will say, thank you. And I will take my own advice, and I will just stop.
JOAN WOODWARD: Wonderful, Mike. And I'll tell our viewers our next couple of sessions. Thank you again, Mike.
Wednesdays with Woodward Webinar Series. Upcoming Webinars. January 18, Making Sense of the Headlines: Insurance Market Insights for 2023 with Doctor Robert Hartwig. January 25, Healthy New Year: Transformative Food Habits for 2023. February 1, Understanding Insurance Regulations: A Conversation with N.A.I.C. C.E.O. Michael Consedine. February 15, Economic Outlook 2023 with Former White House Senior Economist Dr. LeVaughn Henry. Register: travelersinstitute.org.
Our next session is January 18. So just a week away, I'll be joined by our industry veteran and fan favorite, Dr. Bob Hartwig. He's going to talk to us about the insurance marketplace for 2023. Don't miss that. We all know Bob, and he's fantastic.
And then, on January 25, we're going to be joined by a panel to help you keep that New Year's resolution to get healthier. Healthier in eating, nutrition, exercise, really to take control back of your health and your future. And we find this-- thousands of people have already registered for this. And we know there's going to be great value in understanding becoming a healthier person.
So and then on February 1, we have a conversation with the CEO of the NAIC, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, to talk about all things regulation and legislation with regard to insurance in the States-- in our 50 states.
And then, don't miss February 15, a former White House senior economist, Dr. LaVaughn Henry, who I worked with on Capitol Hill 25 years ago. Very thoughtful Harvard Ph.D. economist who's going to tell us what's going to happen to the economy going forward.
So again, thank you, my friends. Welcome to 2023. We've got an amazing year ahead, and I'm glad you're joining us.
Travelers Institute (registered trademark). Logo, Travelers. travelersinstitute.org.
Co-Founder, Politico; Co-Founder, Axios; Co-Author, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less
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