Why zero is a perfectly reasonable wordcount goal

Why zero is a perfectly reasonable wordcount goal
June 27, 2018 Beth Nyland

To the delight or (more accurately) dismay of participants, when Jill Pollack and I are leading Story Mode workshops, we routinely challenge students to compress their messages down to micro length.

This activity can take a few minutes, an hour, or the better part of an afternoon. But our instruction takes just a moment:

  • You’ve compiled 20 slides for your sales pitch? Awesome! Now reduce that to five.
  • You’ve stated your business case in three paragraphs? Fantastic! Now summarize it in a hard-working subject line.
  • You’ve defined your product’s value in 75 words? Sweet! Now restate it in the form of haiku. (Yes, we really do that.)

If we’re using PowerPoint (which we seldom do these days), the slide for this segment of our presentation bears just three words:

Love the limitations.

In the moment, that three-word catchphrase keeps everyone focused on the task.

Short messages make useful shorthand.

And after the fact? Well, utter the phrase “love the limitations” to anyone who’s been through the process, and they will do more than understand the words. They will remember the initial panic they felt at a challenge so audacious. They will tell you about a funny or uber-short message someone created. They will probably admit that this game of forced brevity helped them get concise, simple, clear, selective, creative, and honest about what they needed to say.

For those who’ve shared the experience, that three-word phrase—“love the limitations”—is shorthand not just for the lesson itself, but for all the emotion, action, and results that came with it.

How low can we go?

Jill and I are such fans of micro messages, we practice what we preach. When tightening our own communications and those of our clients, we’re forever challenging each other to bouts of “how low can you go.” We might set a numeric goal: edit this 20-page deck down to five concise slides. Or a percentage: reduce the wordcount in this draft by 50 percent. Or a visual target: shorten this email so the recipient doesn’t have to scroll.

We might even aim for total elimination of the words.

We’re taking messages to a new low: zero.

That’s right. Beth and Jill, the writer-storytellers, have decided that zero is a reasonable wordcount goal. We’re practicing communication without words. Not because we want to do away with words, but because we want to be so clear on our concepts that we are certain we’ve got the right words.

A key Story Mode tool is our “Story Starter” worksheet, which poses the six basic but strategic questions you must answer before starting any message. One of those questions revolves around image:

What mental picture do you want the audience to keep?

We’ve always taken this question seriously. Now we’re taking it literally. Beyond envisioning what we want an audience to see, we’re drawing it!

Sometimes, words are not enough.

Our first major experiment in this practice came about because we wanted our business cards—those teeny, tiny expressions of brand—to tell our story. Beyond our logo, names, titles, and contact info, we wanted to give a taste of Story Mode: the lessons we teach, the things we believe, the difference we make.

So, we compressed some of our best material into ten micro messages. Phrases like “love the limitations,” “cut the crap,” and “refuse to be boring” fit easily on the backs of our business cards, with room to spare.

But the words alone felt flat. They needed life, energy, pizzazz.

An illustrated message has tangible personality.

“What if I illustrate those concepts?” I asked Jill.

I’m not a trained artist, but I’m comfortable doodling and drawing. In fact, the pen nib in our logo is an image I drew in a hurry, attempting to show our designer what I was struggling to say in words. We all liked it, so a logo was born.

“Why not?” was Jill’s reply. I love her spirit of adventure.

With a few flicks of a pen (actually Apple Pencil on iPad, with the Adobe Sketch app), I drew a family of icons to illustrate our ten catchphrases. Laid out on our signature colors of red, turquoise, orange, green, and blue-gray, they positively popped.

Better yet, those business cards work, every single time. Everyone who receives one of our cards (1) notices the hand-drawn icon, (2) reads the phrase, and (3) starts a conversation. Several people have suggested using them like collectible trading cards. They want all ten!

Build a visual vocabulary.

Plainly, illustrating our one-liners has been good for our branding and marketing. But the value of sketching a message doesn’t sit in a folder of .JPG or .PNG files.

The real value comes from the clarity you achieve by distilling a message down to its simplest possible form. To deliver that benefit, your images need not ever meet the public eye. And you don’t have to be “good” at drawing.

Inspired by the business card experiment, Jill and I are building a visual vocabulary for Story Mode. When inventing programs, exercises, and ideas, we compress and crystallize our core concepts down to micro messages. Then we distill them even further, to zero-wordcount illustrations. In less than six months, we’ve accumulated more than 40 hand-drawn icons we can use to convey our concepts, market our services, and focus attention on the very essence of what we’re trying to say.

That’s good discipline for any business communicator.

So, how low you can you go? Set the goal at zero.


Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

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