Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

[Guest post] 140 characters or fewer: simplifying the message

Published on 13 January 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Throughout high school, college, and even at university, a challenge we students faced when writing research papers and essays was using as many multi-syllabled words as possible; the perception was that our ideas would only then be received as ‘serious and sophisticated’.  The assignments themselves would fuel this thought with minimum word and page limits, making SHIFT-F7, or the Thesaurus function in MS Word, a great tool for the more desperate among us, who would resort to replacing words like ‘use’ with ‘utilise’ in a slow, agonising yet sure attempt to push the page count up to the required limit.

Over time, the opposite of what we believed – or perhaps were made to believe – actually holds increasingly true. The advent of the over-information age, with its innumerable Google search results, social media posts, apps, and limitless other resources available on our handheld devices, grapples with time and hampers our attention span.  The demands of today’s ‘hyper’ reality require ideas and information to be communicated simply, more efficiently and through more effective means than ever before. 

Wordy PowerPoint presentations, stretched speeches, multi-paragraphed e-mails, and lengthy videos have a diminishing value, if any at all.  But there continue to be those embroiled in these practices, which makes it clear that simplifying communication may be easier said than done (no pun intended).  Simplifying a complex idea and effectively delivering the message is a tremendous skill to have, yet our mindset may not have been trained to do so throughout our formative school years, or perhaps some still misperceive lengthy and complex writing as a sign of sophistication. Instead, more often, complexity and unclarity may suggest that there is a lack of a message at all.

A great contributor to honing this ability has been the mass popularity of messaging, either through text or SMS (Short Message Service), or now through chat apps like BBM, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Line, WeChat and others. Another tool that contributes towards the skill is Twitter and its restriction of posts to 140 characters. The limitations can sometimes be inhibiting, yet they offer great practice in forcing the user to eliminate supplementary information from the core message to be conveyed.

While writing my doctoral dissertation, I was subjected to my advisor playing her best butcher to the slab of meat I had submitted, in mercilessly removing excess pages that I had spent many hours toiling over.  The exercise was challenging at first; it was difficult not to interpret it then as squandered effort. Yet, after enduring it many times over, there is a feeling of liberation in being able to break through the shackles of words and shorten and simplify the message. 

Others in the past have maintained that conveying an idea with fewer words is better. It is not a new concept, and yet it can seem so novel. I am reminded of a reference by the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. Efficiency can require more effort but is essential to convey ideas, regardless of the mode of communication.  Blaise Pascal, for one, would have agreed.

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Dr Shujaat Wasty is a Senior Learning Advisor with the Canadian Foreign Service Institute at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada.

4 replies
  1. Shujaat
    Shujaat says:

    Mary – thanks for the other
    Mary – thanks for the other references. It’s interesting how certain trends seem to be cyclical. Re: plain English – an interesting movement with some debate around concerns of “degradation” of language (as opposed to seeing it evolving). Thoughts?

  2. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Thanks for this interesting
    Thanks for this interesting posting. I agree with your main point on the value of clear and concise writing, and the sometimes painful process of learning how to do this. But I’m not sure I agree that SMS and Twitter-style communication help us to achieve that. I think we need more than 140 characters to express most ideas beyond ‘look at this!’ Twitter may be useful for sharing information and finding others with similar interests – but I don’t see much actual exchange and development of ideas in Twitter. I’d be interested to hear other views on this.

    • Shujaat
      Shujaat says:

      Hannah – it can definitely be
      Hannah – it can definitely be a debatable point; I think it may depend on what is being discussed and to what level an exchange is required. But I’ve seen some beneficial exchanges on Twitter and even personally, there have been times that I have experienced development of ideas through LinkedIn.

      But I’d agree that these tools generally may be more useful to initiate conversations that can later develop into a (more) meaningful exchange separately – touched upon it in this post: https://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/are-phones-still-phones-guest-blog/

  3. Mary
    Mary says:

    Interesting post Shujaat.
    Interesting post Shujaat. There’s a plain English movement in the UK that is attempting to do as you suggest. And, Pascal wasn’t the only one to think this way… various other quotations along similar lines show that Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Younger, Cato, and Cicero all had a similar view. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/28/shorter-letter/

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