Word Wise: Say One Thing

talk balloon -oneAccording to the bestselling book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, if you want your message to stick, you must first figure out the one thing you want to say. Then, say that one thing.

  • “Find the core of the idea.”
  • “You can’t have five North Stars, [and] you can’t have five ‘most important goals.'”
  • “The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren’t the most important idea.”
  • “Forced prioritization is really painful. Smart people recognize the value of all the material.”
  • “When your remote control has fifty buttons, you can’t change the channel anymore.”
  • “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.”

How hard could it be to say just one thing? Hard. Remember your English teacher scribbling in your margin, “Where’s your thesis statement?” Busted! Maybe that never happened to you, but many students fill page after page with information—so many facts, so little space!—without ever bringing it all together to say one thing.

Have you ever sat through a presentation—a perfectly fine one that kept you nodding your head without ever making you nod off—only to discover, when someone asked you about it a few minutes later, that you couldn’t remember what it was about? That presenter may have had a lot to say, but he or she didn’t say one thing.

Think back to your own most recent challenging piece of writing: a white paper, a book, a blog post, a Help topic, a mission statement. Did you know from the start the one thing that it needed to say? What was it? Did you know it by the end? Did your readers see that one thing?

Your one thing may have pieces and parts: sub-things, side-things, example-things, on-the-other-hand-things. To convey your one thing, you may need details, pictures, tables, charts. Footnotes, sidebars, pull-quotes, specs. I confess, those things sometimes lure me away from the one thing.

If you write task, concept, and reference topics (as many technical writers do), you know that each topic must answer one and only one main question: How do I…? What is…? Where can I look up…? Figuring out that one question gets you off to a good start. But topics balloon. You start out saying one thing, and, next thing you know, you’re saying five things. Your one question branches into five questions. And maybe that works. Maybe those five questions work as subtopics within your topic—maybe they all support your main message. Then again, maybe you need to divvy up your topic into five topics, each new topic saying one thing.

One thing. Simple but not easy. I’ve known this principle for decades. I own this principle. Yet I struggle to put it into practice. While I was writing Word Up!—a book about writing—my husband sometimes asked me, after reading a chapter, “What’s your thesis here?” Busted! Even after all these years, I get caught up in the many things I want to say, and I forget the importance of tying them together so that they all say one thing.

While noodling on this principle, my whiteboard caught my eye. It looked like this:
whiteboard before

Now it looks like this:

whiteboard after

For the moment, I like it better. Now that it … you know.

Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia has run a tech-writing business for ... a long time. The author of "Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)," she taught tech writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program. For more, see howtowriteeverything.com.

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