Book Review: Smart Brevity by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz

by | 10 February 2023 | Communication, Presentation Skills, Written Communications

Smart Brevity
Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz
London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2023.


The premise of Smart Brevity is that business writing has failed to move with the times. In the smartphone age, anyone can easily and freely send their every thought out into the world. Yet too many of us still equate length with importance. The result is a ‘fog of words’. As readers we are overloaded, and as writers, we are wasting our time. Emails are skipped, blogs are skimmed, and lovingly crafted thought pieces are abandoned at paragraph two.

Cutting Through the Fog

The writers recommend ‘Smart Brevity’ (their trademark) as the way to cut through the word-fog. First, we must think differently. We should dissociate length from importance (‘brevity is confidence’), renounce floridity and nuance, and prioritise what our audience want or need to hear, not what we want to say.

When structuring, our first sentence (or ‘lede’) should contain our single key takeaway, baldly and boldly stated. This is where we tell our reader ‘something [they] don’t f***ing know’. Next comes the ‘axiom’, where we say (in a maximum of two sentences) ‘Why It Matters’. Finally we invite the reader to ‘go deeper’ into our bulletpointed, punchily monosyllabic, active-verb-only content.

Was I Convinced?

The strongest case for the benefits of Smart Brevity is the book itself, which obeys its own rules. As a result of its consistent structure and plain language, it is a quick and impactful read. I was surprised by how much I retained – not only its general thrust but also specific advice, terminology and examples.

On the other hand, I found the book’s advice too prescriptive. There is a zeal in the writers’ conviction that they have found THE winning formula. The book has a whiff of the sales pitch, and indeed the writers make frequent mention of their proprietary Axios HQ software. The book doesn’t provide enough evidence to shake my conviction that one size does not fit all. At MSB Executive we prefer to create a bespoke communications strategy tailored to a client’s particular circumstances and objectives.

At times, the writers’ punchy language does not serve them well. The bold and direct tone leaves little room for disagreement on the reader’s part. This is not a book I felt in conversation with. ‘Use bullets, often’, the writers command, since they dream of ‘[a] world that exclusively uses bullet points’. If you don’t share that dream (and I don’t), too bad. Elsewhere, in a chapter that does not look great in black and white print, they instruct us to eschew words altogether and make use of emojis, to get our readers ‘into the right headspace’. I’m not sure emojis, however restrained their use, would be a move in the right direction for some of MSB’s clients.

Some ‘before/after’ examples of Smart Brevity in action are good pieces of editing. Others (in my opinion) are not. A war against woolliness is laudable. A war against nuance is irresponsible when supposition is turned into fact. It is misleading and reckless for a non-specialist to remove the word ‘possibly’ from a sentence about the infectiousness of a Covid variant.

Very Good in Parts!

All of the above notwithstanding, Smart Brevity offers a great deal of excellent and useful advice. Indeed, many of the key principles are ones we already champion at MSB Executive: put your audience first; headline your message before offering detail; use plain English; know your one key takeaway word for word. The advice on Powerpoint is very welcome indeed and closely matches the guidance we offer clients (for a taster, see our blog on this subject). Likewise, if more people ran meetings the Smart Brevity way, happiness and productivity would increase.

The final vision of a company that keeps everyone fully in the loop all the time through snappy and entertaining departmental newsletters is an enticing one. I am tempted to sip the Kool Aid, if not drink the whole bottle.


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