A quick look at Axios’ “Smart Brevity” book

I spent a chunk of last Wednesday sitting with Jim VandeHei as part of a focus group for the Axios book, “Smart Brevity.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Smart Brevity, it’s the bread-and-butter approach Axios takes to telling stories. The goal is simple: Tell people what they need to know right away, tell them why they should care about it, give them the option of going deeper without making it mandatory and move on with life.

With that approach in mind, here’s the best brief review I can do:

“Smart Brevity” forces writers to economize their work for the sake of their readers. This audience-centric approach cuts through the content deluge readers receive each day and improves multiple communication experiences. “Smart Brevity” won’t work in as many places as the authors state, but the underlying tenets can be helpfully adapted to various situations. It’s a quick read and worth the time, especially for non-journalists.

In the tradition of Axios, if you want more than that, here’s a deeper dive:


IT’S BRIEF: Axios talks the talk and walks the walk on brevity. The book weighs in at 218 pages, but it is easy to read and the pages fly by. Anecdotes are limited to those that really emphasize the point, examples hit the point before quickly moving on and the bullet-point structure familiar to Axios readers makes for bite-sized chunks that are easy to consume.

IT’S HELPFUL: The hard part about being a writer is that writers love to write, almost to a fault. Axios sympathizes with that instinct, but shows key ways to do more with less. A lot of what the authors emphasize (NVO structure, get to the point immediately, tell me why I care, focus on the audience) is at the core of good journalism. The book serves as an entry point to non-journalists who need to write clearly and succinctly while providing journalism-style folk with a reminder to avoid falling in love with our own prose.

(The focus group was interesting in that we had journalism faculty, PR faculty, broadcast faculty and business/marketing faculty. The business person gushed about how amazing and revolutionary and special this was. She went on and on about how the business school was adding this book to its curriculum and making it a must-read and how her life was essentially changed by this book, as she Post-It noted the thing to death. The journalism and broadcasters in the room were looking at each other like, “Um… Yeah… This is kind of what we do already…”)

IT’S ENGAGING: The writing in here is clear and direct but also conversational and engaging. One of the best compliments a student ever paid to my textbook was, “I can hear you in my head when I’m reading this.” I don’t know what any of these guys actually sound like, but I felt the same way here. This wasn’t a preacher’s sermon. It was a valuable chat.

IT’S HUMBLING: These guys didn’t emerge from the womb as smart-brevity writers. It took a while for them to get here and they explain that backstory in places. The examples range from VandeHei’s interaction with a demanding Washington Post editor to Mike Allen’s experience developing his newsletter and show how they moved from the “It’s gotta be long to be good” paradigm to the “Brevity is confidence. Length is fear” motto that Axios espouses.


IT’S A ONE-TRICK PONY: The latter half of the book shows how you can apply the smart brevity model to everything from emails and presentations to meetings and speeches. In each case, there’s a ton of repetition without much nuance. In addition, as we discussed here before, the Axios model can fall into the “Law of the Instrument” problem, in which they pitch it like a 1980s infomercial:

We can all use tighter speeches, presentations and emails to be sure, and I would give real money if someone could find a way to make meetings no longer than five minutes. However, the smart brevity model can come across as abrupt and blunt in some of these situations. (If I got a “smart brevity” email from my boss like the example in the book, I’d immediately think he’s pissed at me.)

IT’S AUDIENCE-CENTRIC, BUT NOT UNIVERSAL: One of the things that the Axios crew knows better than anyone else is how to serve its audience. The book hits on audience-centricity repeatedly, and for good reason: Writers often write for themselves, which is where we get into trouble. The audience for Axios, and the authors’ previous home of Politico, was a group of on-the-go political junkies who were well-versed in the language, culture and vibe of D.C. scene. The writers were part of that scene as well, so it was easy to “speak the language” of the sources and make points quickly.

(When I mentioned this in the group discussion, VandeHei noted how they’ve helped BP, CitiGroup and other organizations to implement this form of writing . He also mentioned that each time he brought this format up to various groups, ranging from scientists to lawyers, they all said it would never work for their field, but it did. My point was still that these people had a shared culture and vocabulary so, yes, it does work in that way, but not if you’re bringing folks into the fold on something new or talking to people outside of this area. I got the sense he disagreed.)

The “Smart Brevity” approach works in this format, but not in situations like teaching someone a new skill, laying out a detailed plan or other things that require writers to bring along people who don’t have the foundational knowledge Axios knew its audience had. That’s not to say the content of the book can’t help improve the writing in these situations, but the writer has to know the audience well enough to adapt the “Smart Brevity” approach to the needs and acumen of that group.


Leave a Reply