Tell Them Short and Sweet

There is a popular rule of thumb for people giving presentations:

“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

Note that this 3× rule refers to oral speaking, and the reason is that research studies have shown that people only remember 20% of what they hear. Repetition improves memory retention from 30% to 110%, so if they hear it three times in one sitting, roughly half of the folks might remember what was said.

In writing, however, this 3× rule ends up being very redundant. Busy professionals don’t have time to read – or write! – the same information three or more times in one sitting. Besides, if they don’t remember something, they can always search for the document and read it again; such is not the case with the spoken word, hence the 3× rule.

Some technical paper formats require the 3× rule, such as SPE papers with the mandatory Abstract, Body, and Conclusions sections. However, most other business documents should only require two doses of the information:

1)The short version or Executive Summary right up front – for those who are not interested in the details; and

2) The longer version – with just enough details to ensure thorough comprehension or justification, such that they exclaim: “Sweet!”

Shorter writing is better writing. There is no need to keep saying the same things over and over again in a document. So the rule for scribing is: “Tell them short, and tell them sweet.”


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