We are getting better at cramming longer messages into fewer words. First, the advertising industry boomed mid 19th century (a la Mad Men), and everyone got slogan happy and grab savvy.
Then television and journalism became allies, and we had a new generation of broadcasters and newspaper men and women adept at the 30 second grab and the killer headline.
At the same time, marketing and human resources became dominant in the business world. And they too focused on how the written word could solve problems, sell stuff and persuade people.
Now, mobile devices are the apparent cherry on top. They have prompted a whole new way of writing — a way that takes the writing trends of the past 50 years, along with our opinionated spitballing, and funnels it all into pop-up nuggets of simple text.
We now even write in code, such as IRL (in real life) and ISO (in search of).
Texting, social sites, user driven news … we love writing and reading this stuff. We can do it on the run, and then we comment/reply while hanging out the washing, watching a footy game, walking the dog or even doing our paid work.
For writers, producing online text is not so much a case of write it right, but write it ‘lite’. Our text needs to be like a drive-through coffee vendor: the reader pulls up, collects our ‘message’ and heads off. It’s a 10 second transaction.
But, as we crunch our message into ever smaller take-away containers, we sometimes make it ambiguous or untruthful. Ever read a news headline that has nothing to do with the actual story? Or misinterpreted a colleague’s dashed off email? Or clicked on a web link that doesn’t relate to the content that you expected?
Check out these examples:
NOTE THAT COULD HAVE SAVED THE USA (headline)
Sensationalism: George Bush is accused of ignoring a memo that warned of impending terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
SAFETY EXPERTS SAY SCHOOL BUS PASSENGERS SHOULD BE BELTED (headline)
Poor word choice: Bus passengers need seatbelts, not a beating.
TWO SOVIET SHIPS COLLIDE, ONE DIES (headline)
Grammar problem: More correctly, ‘Two Soviet ship collide, one person dies’.
25% MEN UNDER 40 SEEKING TREATMENT FOR ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION (headline)
Misuse of data: More correctly, ‘One in four seeking erectile dysfunction treatment is younger than 40′.
I may definitely need your help. (email)
Conflicting message: The ‘maybe/definitely’ combination requires the reader to follow up to clarify.
We need to take on more complex projects. (email)
Ambiguity: Does the writer mean more projects that are complex, or projects that are more complex?
In these cases, the sharp ABC (always be communicating) has become the decidedly uncool NRC (not really communicating).
So, as we increasingly streamline our messages, the real question is whether we’re talking straight, and representing our stories and ourselves honestly, or whether we’re spreading scandal, misdirection or mistruth.
My bottom line? When you’re keeping it short, keep it real.