Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman – both preeminent American authors – could not be more different in their writing styles. Whitman is known for his flowery, elegant, and poetic prose. Hemingway’s storytelling is recognizable by his direct, unadorned approach. Each are widely imitated and celebrated in the world of literature. But for today’s public affairs professionals, Hemingway’s style is the one to emulate.
Press flacks, consultants, and executives should recognize the news cycle is too fast – and the attention of readers too short – to issue lengthy, overexplanatory statements. They would do well to keep these announcements simple and concise, improving the odds a reporter will read it, and include that statement in a broadcast or article.
Take the topic of truth. Here is how Hemingway describes it in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”:
“There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all truth.”
The opening of Whitman’s “All is Truth” puts it a more elaborate way:
“O me, man of slack faith so long! Standing aloof – denying portions so long; Only aware today of compact, all-diffused truth; Discovering today there is no lie, or form of lie, and can be none, but grows as inevitably upon itself as the truth does upon itself, or as any law of the earth, or any natural production of the earth does.”
Same message, completely different delivery. Only one of these quotes would likely be used in a broadcast or news article, and the choice is clear.
The need for brevity is not limited to public affairs professionals. The Wall Street Journal recently reported “the average length of a published economics paper has more than tripled over the past four decades,” and one MIT professor lamented the “logorrhea of our current state of scholarship.” In fact, the American Economics Association is attempting to stem the problem by launching a journal “dedicated to publishing only concise papers – nothing longer than 6,000 words, or about 15 double-spaced pages.”
Let’s consider a political example. This statement was issued by a candidate for U.S. Senate after the President announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Iran deal:
“President Donald Trump showed great courage and leadership by pulling the United States out of the Iran Nuclear Deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He campaigned, in part, on the promise to take the United States out of the JCPOA. Today, he has kept that promise.
“In 2016, Americans chose a new path. When voters elected Donald Trump, they rejected the feckless foreign policy thinking of the past when being firm with our enemies was regarded as reckless while appeasement was considered acceptable. The President must not remain trapped by the failed policies of the Obama administration, which demonstrated a lack of American resolve and emboldened the regime.
“Since entering the JCPOA, Tehran has amplified its regional aggression, advanced its missile program, and flaunted its military strength. Making matters worse, Iran’s leaders continue their calls for Israel’s annihilation. And despite assurances to the contrary, Tehran has exercised an unabated pattern of deception when dealing with the international community.
“Iran is the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism. President Trump has rightly declared that Iran will not attain nuclear weapons nor the means to deliver them. A nuclear Iran will never be acceptable.
“Moving forward, a comprehensive approach should press the IAEA to strengthen and expand its inspection of Iran’s nuclear program; oppose Iran’s regional aggression and support for terrorism, including any permanent Iranian military presence in Syria; toughen sanctions against those supporting Iran’s missile program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah; and ensure that Israel has the means and flexibility to defend itself against the growing Iranian threat.
“President Trump is right: the Iranian people deserve a safe, prosperous and free Iran. Getting out of the JCPOA was not only a promise kept, but a concrete step towards peace.”
This statement was written to appeal to a conservative audience, which it does adequately enough. But the author missed the mark for media consumption and the general public. First, the statement should have ended after the first paragraph; the last five are repetitive and certainly not as strong as the lead. Second, the additional material gives reporters options for quotes to use in their article, instead of steering them to the one the author wanted. Third, when issuing statements on widely-discussed topics of the day – such as the Iran deal – the use of background information on the issue is not always needed, especially when being used within a direct quote. In this case, less is more.
There are plenty of times when this is done right. For example, Sanofi, a pharmaceutical manufacturer that produces the sleep medication known as Ambien, found itself in the middle of a social media firestorm not of its own making. Roseanne Barr, the outspoken and controversial actress, laid the blame on her Ambien medication for racist, insensitive, tweets. The next morning, the company hit back with this statement:
“People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
In a moment of crisis, Sanofi defended its company and its products, and condemned Barr’s racist comments with two short sentences. The quote was quickly and widely disseminated, enabling the company to cut through the ‘noise’ and get its entire message to the public unadulterated.
Effective communications – political, corporate, academic, or otherwise – requires insightful, succinct, and informative messaging. Don’t use five paragraphs when one will suffice. Be informative, but don’t give away the farm. Know your audience, and tailor the message accordingly.
Above all: more Hemingway, less Whitman.