44 pages 1 hour read

Jim Vandehei, Mike Allen, Roy Schwartz

Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Smart Brevity is a 2022 book written by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz that proposes a new way of writing in the digital age that advocates for a shorter, leaner, and more precise writing style. The authors, who are also the co-founders of the news organization Axios, argue that in a world where audience attention is always up for grabs, learning ways to capture that attention is an increasingly valuable and essential skill. Offering a template that breaks down compositions into four core components, the authors present a strategy for effectively reaching an audience and making one’s written communication stand out.

This guide refers to the 2022 Kindle edition.


The book is divided into three parts and kicks off with a Prologue entitled “The Fog of Words.” Immediately, the authors establish the need for an effective writing style that can capture attention and stand out in an age of overflowing information. They cite data that show just how limited attention spans are, making it clear that consumers of online content tend to scan and skim rather than read content thoroughly. The authors contend that for many people, expressing ideas in writing is challenging, and usually the result is that writers say too much. In light of the data the authors present, wordiness is the wrong approach. Instead, the authors argue for a less-is-more approach to writing. They promise that if the reader hones the skills of smart brevity as detailed in the book, they are far more likely to gain an audience for whatever purpose their writing is intended.

Part 1, entitled “What Is Smart Brevity,” outlines the fundamentals of the authors’ proposed method. The authors contend that a leaner style of writing has a far greater chance of standing out and gaining reader retention than a meandering, long-winded style. Employing a conversational and informal tone themselves, the authors insist that smart brevity is useful for people of all walks of life, including students, CEOs, teachers, administrators, managers, and neighborhood leaders. The authors carefully distinguish smart brevity from dumbed-down writing, noting that shorter writing is not the same as unintelligent writing. In fact, they make the case that learning how to craft a precise piece of writing is a skill that must be practiced, and the end result should be that the writer is able to say a great deal of good quality in fewer words. They outline what they refer to as the “core 4,” which are the four fundamental components of the method: an attention-grabbing headline, a strong opening sentence that directly captures the main point, a section on why the message matters, and an option for the reader to go deeper into the nuance and context of the idea. All four components, the authors argue, should fit on the screen of a phone.

Part 1 also delves into the backstory of how the strategy came to fruition. The authors provide brief biographical information that is relevant to explaining what smart brevity is. Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei were both established political correspondents for national publications, while Roy Schwartz was a businessman and a consultant for the polling firm Gallup. The three co-founded Axios, and as a guiding principle for how they presented news for reader consumption, smart brevity was born. Significantly, they insist again that smart brevity respects readers by delivering high-quality content that has not been dumbed down while also respecting readers’ time.

Part 2, entitled “How to Do It,” provides a deeper look into the process of following the smart brevity method. In each of the seven chapters of Part 2, the authors dig deeper into the “core 4” components of the method. To begin with, the authors point to data that show reader habits when perusing online content. Generally speaking, readers scan headlines and make quick decisions on whether or not to invest any more time in that particular story. It is often the case, according to the authors, that readers do not always read headlines in a way that leads to retention. In other words, readers may view a headline and see all the words, but they are not really processing it. Understanding readers’ tendencies, especially regarding online content, better positions writers to communicate effectively. Considering one’s audience is a crucial component of this writing method.

Chapter 6, which is entitled “Grab Me,” focuses on the importance of crafting an effective hook. The authors suggest that every word needs to count and that any filler text risks losing the reader’s attention. The headline, or the subject line of an email, should result in a reader wanting to know more. It should engage their curiosity. The authors return to this idea often in the book when they discuss how to apply smart brevity in the real world. The authors contend that an effective, attention-grabbing headline should be no more than six words.

The rest of the chapter further details the core components. The authors urge writers to state their main point early on and to return to that main point in their closing. Writers should make sure they know what their main idea is, state it clearly and directly, and use active verbs as often as possible. Veering into abstractions and words that represent concepts rather than things is risky and usually unnecessary. In the remainder of Part 2, the authors advocate using bullet points rather than long paragraphs and using bold font to draw readers’ attention to important and specific points. The authors also discuss the use of emojis, which are typically regarded as informal. Again, the authors reiterate that the writer needs to know their audience and be careful when using emojis. They also provide examples of effective ways emojis could be used. Lastly, the conclusion of many of these chapters (as is the case in Part 3 also) presents a section called “Tips & Tricks,” which provides a summary of the relevant chapter’s main points.

Part 3, entitled “Smart Brevity in Action,” demonstrates the different applications of smart brevity in different situations. The authors take a prescriptive approach for most of the section, especially after spending Chapter 12 further describing the partial inspiration and model of smart brevity that was Allen’s well-received Politico Playbook. From there, the authors transition into the prescriptive approach, outlining what writers should do in any given situation. These suggestions include applying smart brevity to workplace situations, emails, PowerPoint presentations, speeches, social media posts, and visual graphics. There is also a chapter devoted to a managerial audience that trumpets the benefits of using smart brevity when communicating with staff. While the scenarios are different, generally speaking, much of Part 3 probes into hypothetical scenarios that illustrate how smart brevity might be used in a workplace context. Real anecdotes provided by the authors detail how various professionals and CEOs who have adopted smart brevity have experienced measurable improvements in their communications with their intended audiences. Part 3 also includes a chapter on how best to use visual images, art, and graphics; these recommendations offer relevant adaptations of the smart brevity blueprint for writing. Significantly, an entire chapter specifically addresses inclusivity in the workplace, in which the authors argue that smart brevity is a naturally inclusive communication style that is broadly accessible for the widest range of audience types.

Chapter 23, entitled “The Cheat Sheet,” is a summation of the method’s fundamental principles and presents a template for readers to use. The authors also guide writers through the process, offering a tutorial for the actual use of smart brevity. They insist again that this strategy is an essential skill for writers to possess in the digital age.

The book closes with Chapter 24, “Take Smart Brevity for a Spin.” In this chapter, the authors introduce an app that can grade uploaded samples of writing, generating a smart brevity score result. The chapter invites readers to visit the smart brevity website and outlines the various products and services that can be found there.

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