When it comes to communication, being restricted is definitely better, ie more conducive to effectiveness, than having no limits at all. I was reminded of this by a recent presentation by Steve Wheeler, in which he cited Pete Yeomans on the subject of text messaging. He said:
Mobile phones are forcing children to become more literate. Without the ability to txt, they cannot fully participate in their own culture of communication.
This is true, and it reminded me of several other thoughts I have had on the subject, and a great discussion with Matt Pearson.
Get to the point
In general, being restricted forces you to get to nub of the matter without padding or persiflage. The most difficult essay I was given at university was “Explain the monetarist view of inflation and unemployment, and how to cure them, in more than 500 words.” To give you an idea of how hard that might be, the number of words in this article so far comes to 166. When I was in charge of teams of people I asked them to summarise issues for me on a side of A4 paper, but my boss was even more restrictive: he wouldn’t even look at anything if it was longer than half a dozen bullet points.
Brevity is the soul of wit
Shakespeare was dead right when he put those words in Polonius’ mouth, in Hamlet. My own view is that if you can’t explain the essentials of something in 140 or 160 characters then, to quote from that great philosopher Long John Baldry, “you know, you don’t don’t know what it’s all about”. Brevity often leads to creativity. See, for example, these examples of award-winning fiction in 140 characters. Have a look, too, at this competition for start-up stories in 140 characters. True, it's sponsored by the National Venture Capital Association, so it's not altogether a disinterested party, but it's an interesting idea.
Flash fiction, in which you have just 100, or a couple of hundred, words in which to write a short story, is much harder to write, yet more satisfying to read (in my opinion) than the longer variety of short story. Hundred word challenges are standard fare of creative writing specialists, and can also help to encourage children to write (presumably because the task seems to be less daunting than a longer piece might. Such innocence!). Have a look, for example, at Julia Skinner’s brilliant and popular 100 Word Challenge website. If I were an employer, I would specify that job applicants send me their CV (resumé) accompanied by a letter of application comprising no more than 140 characters; it would certainly cut down on the reading, if nothing else.
To read a wonderful take, by a 13 year-old girl, on the usual essay “What I did in the summer holidays”, see C? I Tld U So, Didn't I? TxtN Isn't So Bad Aftr Ll, Unl Ur /:-).
The KISS principle
We have all heard of the “Keep it simple, silly” approach to explaining stuff. It works (see, for example, Freedman’s 5 Minute Rule).
Once, faced with the challenge of how to get my students to remember two major, and conflicting, views of why people save, came up with the idea of expressing them in a couple of blues songs. The textbooks went into long and laborious explanations, replete with graphs and indecipherable equations. The students could not see the wood for the trees. Yet having been presented with these blues songs in a single lesson, they grasped the basic theories immediately – and remember them when I tested them 6 months later. As Matt Pearson said when I told him about this recently, the blues song format provided a structure and a really simplified version of the theories which the students could delve into more deeply. I think he is right, and I think a similar idea could be applied to any theory. In case you're wondering, here are the lyrics. And no, I won’t be singing them for you any time soon!
By Johnny Keynes and the Marginals
You know I woke up this morning, and saw that my income's way too low
I said woke up this morning, and saw that my income's way too low
I said to my woman, I ain't gonna save nothin' no more
My woman told me, she thinks that stashing my cash is wrong
Yeah my woman done told me, that stashin' my cash is so wrong
She don't seem to understand that I might wanna buy me some bonds.
One of these days, gonna get myself a well-paid job
Yes I got a feeling, I'm gonna get myself a well-paid job
When that day comes, gonna stop being a no-savings slob.
By Irving Fischer and the Classicals
You know I woke up this morning, and saw that interest rates are way too low
I said woke up this morning, and saw that that interest rates are way too low
I said to my woman, I ain't gonna save nothin' no more
My woman told me, I oughtta stop spending my cash
Yes my woman told me, I gotta stop spending my cash
I told her interest rates are low, so ain't no point in buildin' up a stash
One of these days, interest rates are gonna rise again
Yes I got a feeling, that interest rates are gonna rise again
When that day comes, my days of spending are gonna end
How technology can help
Technology can be used in several ways to force students (and teachers!) to be brief:
- Using Twitter automatically restricts people to 140 characters – in fact, even less when you consider that you have to include your Twitter name and (ideally) allow room for others to add their own comment if they retweet your tweet. (In my opinion, services that allow you to type longer tweets miss the point.)
- Using text messaging on mobile phones has the same effect.
- If you want to limit the number of words people write, eg for a story, set up a survey form with a paragraph field for the story, and restrict the number of characters allowed in the space to 5 times the number of words in your limit. Thus a 100 word story would be allowed 500 characters, which would be roughly correct.
Finally, I should like to apologise for the length of this article, which contains twice the number of words I usually aim for. All I can say is that being incredibly brief is an ideal to aim for, but not always attainable. But I trust you will agree that not a word has been wasted!