Four Writing Tips For Smart Leaders

There are only six words in the title of this article. It’s what Axios co-founder Jim VandeHei would call a “muscular tease.” VandeHei and his Axios co-founders wrote Smart Brevity, a book that reveals the power of saying more with less.

“Stop using too many words in a subject or headline,” VandeHei told me in a recent conversation. “Limit yourself to six words, tops.”

The six-word headline is just one of many valuable tips VandeHei offers business communicators who want to stand out and get ahead.

Here are four elements of the Smart Brevity system that apply to both written material and presentations. Best of all, they are easy to adopt.

1. Start with a muscular tease.

This is where the six-word headline comes into play. Whether you’re writing an email, memo, or tweet, strive to keep the subject to six words. There are two good reasons for doing so.

First, according to Smart Brevity, “The brain is wired to make a clear, quick yes-or-no decision—fight or flight, click or scroll, read or ignore, remember or forget.” Second, no more than six or seven words appear in the email subject line on a smartphone.

After speaking to VandeHei, I experimented with this article’s headline. My first attempt at a headline—at seven words— was cut off on my iPhone: Four Simple Writing Tips For Smart leaders. So I removed the word ‘simple’ and it fit perfectly. Best of all, it gets to the point.

I don’t think it’s always necessary to stick to six words only. VandeHei agrees that his suggestions are ‘guardrails,’ not hard-and-fast rules. However, I believe that striving for six-word headlines in memos, blog posts, or email subject lines is an excellent exercise to test your editing skills.

For example, read the two email subject lines below. Which do you believe an employee is more likely to open?


Some updates to recent meetings on remote/hybrid work policies


New Hybrid Work Plan Starts Monday

I hope you agree that the latter six-word subject line is more enticing and more likely to be open, read, and acted on.

2. Open with a strong sentence.

According to VandeHei, “Your opening sentence should be the most memorable.” Tell the reader something they don’t know, would want to know, or should know. “Make this sentence as direct, short, and sharp as possible.”

I agree with VandeHei that you put much of your energy into the first lines of your written material. In a conversation with the writer James Patterson, I learned that Patterson spends most of his focus on the first lines of his books (and the first sentence of each chapter). It seems to have worked for him.

The first sentence of your email or the first thing you say at the beginning of a presentation is your opportunity to hook the audience. Don’t give them a chance to get bored or stop paying attention.

3. Provide context.

VandeHei suggests that shortly after writing a muscular tease and a strong opening sentence, provide context by telling the reader why it matters. I offer similar advice to executives delivering PowerPoint presentations—tell your audience why the presentation matters to them.

Before you press ‘send’ on an email or give a PowerPoint presentation, ask yourself, “Why should my audience care?” Answer that question in the first sentence or first few seconds, and you’ll grab their attention.

4). Offer the choice to learn more or go deeper.

“Don’t force someone to read or hear more than they want,” says VandeHei. “Make it their decision.”

This tip resonates with me because I teach a program on advanced communication skills at Harvard. The ‘final’ is a seven-minute presentation to the class. Students often ask me, “How can I fit my entire project into seven minutes?” My answer: “you don’t.” Instead, they should tell the audience what they need to hear and give them the opportunity to learn more or go deeper. Have links or documents ready to send to people who request more information.

“You’re in hyper-competition for people’s attention,” says VandeHei. “If you don’t grab people in the first couple of seconds, you’ve lost them. This is why your writing should seduce, provoke me, and make me want to read or hear what you have to say.”


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