Smart Brevity: Who suffers when information is oversimplified?

The unexamined problem with brevity in this case is who suffers, and how, when important information is oversimplified.
"Keep things simple" spelled out in Scrabble lettering made of wood.
Brett Jordan / Unsplash

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The adage that “less is more” is routinely overused and takes on a new life every couple of years. The latest version of this proverb comes from Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz, the founders of Axios, a news media website that prides itself on helping its readers be “smarter, faster on what matters.”

Smart Brevity is the name the trio gave their company’s version of “less is more.” It’s also the title of their 2022 book, subtitled The Power of Saying More With Less. The trio spends a little over 200 pages explaining what smart brevity is, how it came to be and, more importantly for the purposes of growing their brand, how everyone can utilize it in multiple settings. Apparently, every TED talk, boardroom, classroom, email newsletter, and presentation can benefit from speaking and writing with as few words as possible!

The unexamined problem with brevity in this case is who suffers, and how, when important information is oversimplified. The act of curating information for an audience is also the act of gatekeeping information. The more information is simplified, the more an audience should ask itself what information has been sacrificed for their convenience and why.

It’s the powerful who take center-stage in the book. Nearly every example of smart brevity in action before and after the founding of Axios comes from CEOs, government officials, public relations/marketing gurus, realtors, journalists whose work informs those in Washington, D.C. and/or Wall Street. The list of those that made and make smart brevity relevant is a who’s-who of sub-elites who work to sell something to someone all of the time. It gives the impression that smart brevity isn’t so much designed to publish news effectively as it is to peddle information to a specific consumer base.

That impression was made clear earlier this year when a memo from the higher-ups at Axios to their staff was leaked by Defector. The memo, co-written by VandeHei, Editor-in-Chief Sara Goo and Dominique Taylor (HR) using the smart brevity method, shared the company’s decision to prevent its employees from partaking in any political act related to the impending ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, a total about-face of the same decision made in 2020 after the police-murder of George Floyd.

Axios had no problem allowing its staff to become politically involved in protests and other actions in 2020. In 2022, the company decided against doing the same and told its staff to “not engage in any activity that could give the appearance of bias or impropriety in our work.”

The memo then reminds staff that their decision in 2020 was made in “a fleeting moment of unity” of support for any staff members “calling for racial justice & equality,” painting abortion as a highly-politicized human rights issue with specific government policies in debate around it, as opposed to the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less

by Mike AllenJim VandeheiRoy Schwartz 

Workman Publishing, 244

Smart Brevity isn’t the first attempt at simplifying the English language for public consumption. Most American high schoolers are familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s direct prose. George Orwell warned the world of the dangers of fascism and of “Modern English…full of bad habits” in equal measure. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White remains in circulation and on bookshelves nationwide.

What sets the Axios method apart from the rest is its foundation in the world of readership in the digital age. It’s “a new way to think about creating, sharing and consuming information in our cluttered, clanging digital world.”

The Axios method of “cutting through the noise” in the digital world is the curation of short, snappy sentences composed of direct, no-nonsense action words stuffed with just enough context to fit on a phone screen. It even comes with its own template: a blunt headline, a muscular tease, bolded text and bullet points…lots of them! When necessary, include links to other stories or an additional paragraph to invite readers to “Go Deeper” to see “The Big Picture” and provide the additional context that the Axios method typically avoids.

In one of the most telling portions of the book, the authors share the story of when Allen returned to the White House in 2019 to assist the CIA in rewriting its morning news briefs for a very specific audience of one: Donald Trump.

Allen shared his expertise with the White House to help the CIA simplify things for the former president, who was notorious for having the “attention span of a flea,” as they describe it. This is one of the bars the Axios crew has set for its creation. 

The original bar for the creation of Axios began at Politico, co-founded by VandeHei and Allen. Allen began every workday with an email memo to his colleagues that specified his thoughts on stories and trends to follow based on his own readings and from whispers from D.C. insiders. Eventually, Harold Wolfson (then a top aide to Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign) wanted in. He was the first insider, but he was far from the last. This early memo became the standard for the format of smart brevity.

The process then became one of refinement using data pulled from a popular Politico email newsletter and other news sources, general reading habits in the digital age, workplace trends, the authors’ professional journeys, and the “consumption habits of the powerful.” One wonders if the powerful know the world via bullet points and bolded words only.

Axios may have begun as a news website, but what it is today is a company that packages and sells information in a particular style, built around an email newsletter template, that has been repackaged for all types of media consumption. There are sections in the book on using smart brevity for presentations, social media, and speeches. There’s even a chapter on “Communicating Inclusively” that covers smart brevity for the DE&I crowd.

Brevity isn’t a problem in and of itself. It can be necessary in journalism depending on the story. Not everything needs to be written in the style of Proust. However, brevity built on the foundation of the needs of a specific elite who demand decontextualized information in easily digestible bits is a problem. It’s ultimately an upper-class version of the original Buzzfeed listicle. 

That a company that prides itself on delivering smart news naively oversimplified days-long protests and civil unrest against the continued violence from police on people of color, specifically Black men, that spread across the globe into a unified moment of peace and equality is as alarming as it is ridiculous. That the same company also paints abortion and not civil rights as a human rights issue and a political issue should give its readers cause for concern. 

With stories this complex, there is nothing smart about being brief.

Ivan Fernandez is a writer and photographer based in Southern California who specializes in coverage of the arts, culture, history, politics, and sports with an emphasis on Latin America and its US diaspora. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Holly Rosewood.

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