Go short

What’s your favourite line from a movie you love?

One of my favourite lines is from The Matrix, a movie that has generated many famous catchphrases.  There are posters all over the net asking us to choose between the red pill or the blue pill.  Fans debate the meaning of “There is no spoon.” For me, however, the best line comes when Trinity does a cool move and takes out an Agent: Dodge this.

This is a brilliant visual scene, with great angles and use of “bullet time” camera techniques. But the line itself is equally important. Why is this such a memorable line? I could answer this by talking about character, or plot, or scene context. But here’s an even better reason: it’s short.

Think about your favourite movie line. Is it short, too? Chances are it is. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t remember it.

When we communicate with others, we can choose from different styles. We can weave and dodge and come up with fancy words and meandering sentences. Or we can go for it and cut straight to the chase. Which style do you prefer to listen to? (Yes, this is a trick question.)

Here’s my first tip on communication: Go short.  Use short sentences with short words. This is the best way to truly connect with your audience.

You might think that going long will make you sound impressive. Unfortunately, you will likely end up distancing yourself from others. The human brain is constantly bombarded by information, and we don’t have the energy to sift through it all. It’s difficult for us to remember anything, let alone long and wordy sentences. And what’s the point of communicating if what you say won’t be remembered?

Many people find it’s hard to go short. If you cut your teeth writing essays in university (like I did), you may find it especially difficult. After years of trying to get great marks by using long phrases, suddenly you need to shift to a new way of thinking. So how can you do it? Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  • Make sure each sentence contains only one idea. Every time you start to add on another idea, begin a new sentence.
  • Aim for sentences of twenty words or less. This doesn’t mean all of your sentences need to be this short—it’s good to break things up with a long sentence once in a while. Just keep in mind that twenty words is the general limit for most audiences. (Academics tend to be an exception, since they are dealing with complex ideas.)
  • Watch out for connecting words, otherwise known as conjunctions. These words connect ideas together, and are fabulous tools. But connected ideas don’t always have to be in the same sentence. Despite what your English teacher may have told you, it is okay to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and.” Or “but.” Or “or.” So feel free to break those ideas apart into separate sentences.

If you go short, you’re well on your way to communicating something memorable. Maybe you will even come up with the next catchphrase. And if you’re still not convinced that short is the new black, just think about the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo is about to be frozen in carbonite:

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Leia: I love you.

Han: I know.

Five words. Basic character truths. What more could you ask for?

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2 thoughts on “Go short

    1. Hi Jaso, thanks for the link! This is a fantastic article. I love the Steven Pinker quote: “Assumption of equality between writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”

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