Clarity before brevity

Guest author and content designer, Rob Mills shows why focusing on reducing word count alone doesn't guarantee that the message is clear.

Brevity is something that content designers seek and encourage. In most cases I think this is the right approach: communicate the message clearly and succinctly. Getting to the point is an important part of designing useful and usable content that helps a user complete a task.

It’s easy to get fixated on reducing word count, but the focus must be on clarity. While it is commonly thought that clarity comes through saying something with brevity, there are times when you may need to use more words to be as clear as possible with your content.

This raises the question of how many words is the right amount? Of course, it depends. But you should use as many words as you need to be clear. If that means using 18 rather than 10 words, then 18 is what you need.

Brevity in practice

Here’s an example. If a meeting is cancelled and this needs to be communicated to a team, the shortest message to share this information could be:

Meeting cancelled.

Two words are succinct. They inform the person receiving this message that they will not need to turn up to the meeting. But it lacks important information and is quite blunt. You could add more words to make it a little more informal:

Today’s meeting at 2pm has been cancelled. Sorry for any inconvenience.

This version is no more informative or helpful than the first. Another approach could be to share more details:

The scheduled meeting for today at 2pm has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. We will inform you about the rescheduled date as soon as it is determined.

This is more helpful but uses more words than is necessary to say what needs to be said. Perhaps the reason for the cancellation does not even matter. The most useful information is what happens next. So you could say:

Today’s 2pm meeting is cancelled. We’ll send a new calendar invite tomorrow for the rescheduled date and time.

Here, the message is about the cancellation and what happens next. It also uses clearer language. One consideration for clarity over brevity is that it’s not only about shortening the word count, but sometimes about using shorter words.

Prioritising clarity

The preference for clarity over brevity is context-dependent and can vary based on the communication goals and audience. 

Prioritising clarity over brevity can help with: 

  • accuracy - make sure the message is conveyed without ambiguity, and provide more details and explanations to avoid misunderstandings
  • unfamiliarity - if the audience is not familiar with the topic or has varying levels of expertise, a clear and thorough explanation may be more beneficial than a brief one
  • miscommunication - brevity can lead to oversimplification, which might result in miscommunication. Clear and detailed communication helps minimise misunderstandings.

Sometimes you need details, and in those cases a focus on brevity might lead to leaving out important information. Don’t focus too much on reducing words, focus on using the right amount of words so your content is clear, helpful and meeting user needs.

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