Getting to clarity

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and embrace the squeeze

There’s an amazing (and, alas, probably fake) story about the famous Renaissance artist, Michelangelo. It goes like this.

Michelangelo had just finished David, one of his greatest masterpieces. Lots of people came to see it and congratulate him. A Bishop approached him and asked, “Michelangelo, how did you ever create such a sublime work of art from a block of marble?” 

To which Michelangelo replied, “Oh it was easy. I just chipped away everything that didn’t look like David.”  

This story tells us something valuable about the process of creating: it’s often about stripping away the nonessential. This is especially important in business writing and communication. Your audience expects clarity: that means easy-to-understand, well-structured, actionable prose that they can read or skim if they don’t have time. Bonus points if you can entertain people in the process - everyone is a tap or two away from Instagram at all times. You’re competing with everything for people’s attention.

Clarity doesn’t happen by accident. Like Michelangelo, you usually get there by chipping away the excess. This is obviously easier said than done! None of us is Michelangelo, and when you’re writing something, everything feels important. 

Here’s one of my favorite techniques for getting to clarity. The next time you need to write a memo, or presentation or sales pitch, do this first. Write a 250 word summary. Then 100 words. Then 50 words.

My all-time favorite example of a clear mission statement is from SpaceX: 

Making humanity multiplanetary. Building on the achievements of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, SpaceX is working on a next generation of fully reusable launch vehicles that will be the most powerful ever built, capable of carrying humans to Mars and other destinations in the solar system. 

Crystal clear what they want to do. Exciting. Inspiring. All in just 46 words! 

This technique works because compression often yields clarity. 250 words is like a roomy sweater you wear around on a lazy Sunday afternoon. But 100 words is like a business suit. Much tighter, and you’ll be forced to trim a lot to squeeze in. And 50 words is more like a business speedo. You’re down to the essence. And you have what I joke is a “Silicon Valley elevator pitch” - which has to be superfast and to the point since it’s basically a giant suburb with huge office parks and buildings that are only two stories high.

The beauty of this exercise is that the tangible word limit forces you to be really clear about what you want to say. Oftentimes we start writing a presentation without knowing what we really want to say. But if you do this three-step process at the beginning, you begin with a 50-word synopsis. It’s then much easier to build out.

Give it a shot and let us know how you get on. Happy to take a look at anything you come up with - just hit reply!