brand story & messaging

Omission is a virtue, not a sin, in brand storytelling

Carolyn McMaster | December 9, 2015

It’s the holiday season, and many people I know, myself included, are striving not to overdo—not to overspend, overeat or overstuff Christmas stockings, for example.

That’s a good goal for brand storytelling, too.

Compare this: We founded our firm following the dot-com boom, when we looking for something new to do. Over drinks at Absinthe in Hayes Valley, we discovered we share a similar desire to help businesses that do good, and wrote up a short business plan there and then, on a napkin.

With this: We started our firm the classic way, over cocktails, on a napkin.

There’s less information in the second version—it’s a third the size of the original—but it’s far more memorable.

“Writing is selection,” writes John McPhee in a recent New Yorker essay, titled “Omission: Choosing What to Leave Out.”

Revel in brevity
Who hasn’t wanted to include every milestone in their company story? Or explain a product so thoroughly that no question is left unanswered? The better inclination is to revel in brevity. Choosing what to leave out is just as important as choosing what to use.

McPhee cites Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the sculpture grows.” And he recalls that Woody Allen’s editor at The New Yorker, Roger Angell, told Allen that his piece had too many funny lines, so he should take some out. His reasoning: “Even if all the jokes were individually hilarious they tended cumulatively to diminish the net effect.”

Get to the point
Overstuffing a story obscures the message. There’s no hook—and that’s key for grabbing the attention of your customers or the media. Plus, digital media and readers’ time-constrained schedules demand that we get to the point quickly.

Short prose doesn’t mean giving the story short shrift. It takes skill and effort to create quality content that is short. “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter,” Blaise Pascal wrote in 1657, “but I did not have the time to make it shorter.”

My New Year’s wish for you: an abundance of time to keep things short.

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