Some Brief Words on Brevity
I was fortunate to spend 25 years at KYW Newsradio, the all-news institution in Philadelphia, working as a reporter, editor, and City Hall bureau chief. I learned a lot – about people, about politics, about this incredible city, and – perhaps more than anything – about the value of brevity in communicating.
As my former KYW colleagues know all too well, programming policy dictated that our on-air stories be no longer than 45 seconds. Not 46 seconds, and certainly not 47 or 48 seconds. Fifty seconds would prompt yelling from the editor’s desk. Live reports afforded reporters some latitude, since they were often ad-libbed, but even then editors would squawk and anchors would fume if reporters topped the minute mark during live shots. (I left the station in 2015; my sense is that reporters are now given more time; I’m jealous.)
How many words can you speak in 45 seconds? Usually it’s about 120 words, or eight sentences. Subtract 10 seconds for a sound bite, or 20 seconds for two sound bites (because as we know there are two sides to every story). Then factor in that the topic is complex – not uncommon on my City Hall beat – and you’ll see that writing each story posed a concision challenge. Not a single word could be extraneous. Not one.
The process was often painful: parsing each script before recording to remove individual words or rephrase sentences to trim just three or four seconds. Is that adjective necessary? Can I say that in five words rather than 10? And I would sigh when realizing that a clever clause of which I was proud actually added nothing and needed to go.
But each time, at the end, I would get the script to 45 seconds, and in a way that nothing of value had been lost. I learned you can always tell your story with fewer words. It is hard work, but even the most complex or nuanced piece can be written with brevity.
Today, my work on behalf of the clients of Ceisler Media affords me many opportunities - press releases, newsletters, talking points, blog posts - to write pieces without such a severe word count limit. Yet rather than revel in that luxury, I continue to obsess over my word count. The value of brevity remains ingrained.
That’s a good thing, of course. “Less is more” may be trite, but it is key to effective communication. Simplicity, not verbosity, allows bold ideas and achievements to shine through.
I could go on and on preaching about the need to write tight. But my word count is already nearing 500, and your attention, I’m sure, is waning. So, it’s time for me to stop writing – and starting chopping!