Focus: the courage to leave stuff out

Don’t try to say too much. Whether you are writing promotional copy, preparing a speech, or planning a presentation, you need to focus your thoughts. It’s a good idea to aim for just one big thought.

Resist the temptation to say too much. The more you give, the less people get. (Check our blog about Khriz Khan’s remarkable six minute speech to the Democratic Convention to see how that speaker focused his thoughts).

In their book Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath look at how James Carville and other advisors got former President Bill Clinton, in 1992, to focus on one key message – ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ The book recalls how the advisors convinced Clinton:  “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.”

It’s a hard message to accept. For many people, it takes courage to leave stuff out. Whatever your topic – you know a lot. You are the subject matter expert. You know all the subtleties, the different perspectives. But when you come to write, you must prioritize.

At Podium Coaching we call it your focus – but we could borrow a label from movies and call it the controlling idea.

Get comfortable expressing your focus in a single, short sentence. Incorporate in that sentence a reply to the question ‘so what?’ Your audience is looking at your web page, or brochure, or newsletter and wondering ‘what’s in this for me?’ Your focused thought must answer that question.

Think of your focused message as the string of a necklace. The gems strung on the necklace are beautiful. The gems are your stories, your memorable phrases, your insights. But without that simple thread that gives them shape, they’re just a formless jumble of beads rolling round the floor.