Around 1600 Shakespeare wrote about brevity being the soul of wit in Hamlet. Roughly 400 years later,  phone text messaging and Twitter limited us to the number of characters one could post. The fact that Twitter has expanded their character limit and most phone messaging software either provide capacious limits or automatically parse messages across multiple texts it something of a testament to our inability to briefly encapsulate our meaning.

Yet there is a growing need to do so, whether it be mission statements, grant proposals, elevator pitches or show descriptions. People are increasingly less willing to devote attention to processing information.

Since you, the reader are likely of the same mind, here are a couple good resources for distilling your message.

Matt Pusateri writes about telling a non-profit’s story in 20 words or less to make that elevator pitch statement about what you do.

An example he uses:

Table

Providing healthy food to hungry Chapel Hill and Carrboro children every week

(12 words)

Pusateri provides 5 rules toward achieving this:

1. What and for whom – No need to cover who, what, where, when, why, and how. Just whom you serve and what you do.
2. No wasted words – No adjectives, buzzwords, flowerly language
3. Use enough words – Don’t be so sparse, however, that people have to guess what you’re all about
4. Clear, everyday language – no jargon, marketing speak, acronyms
5. They pass the “grandmother” test – your grandmother should be able to understand it when she asks what you do over dinner

His post expounds on this so go read it because, you know, I am trying to be brief.

Another good resource is a piece on Artsy.net which has unfortunately just recently been removed from their website. (You can see a longer summary on my personal blog) Authors Jessica Backus and Elena Soboleva employed their experience writing over 7000 bios for visual artists to compile a list of rules which are applicable to any arts discipline, particularly when it comes to writing promotional copy for events.

They found the best range was between 80 and 140 with 120 words being the ideal. Like Pusateri, they advise avoiding insider jargon and flowery language. They reinforce the idea one should be writing for curious attendees looking to learn more rather than attempting to impress insiders.

The bio should open with a first line that encapsulates, as far as possible, what is most significant about the artist and his or her work, rather than opening with biographical tidbits, such as where the artist went to school, grew up, etc. For example: John Chamberlain is best known for his twisting sculptures made from scrap metal and banged up, discarded automobile parts and other industrial detritus.

[…]

It can be tempting to sing your artists’ praises. We’ve noticed, however, that readers do not respond positively to unsubstantiated claims about an artist’s import (e.g. “Artist X is considered one of the most important artists of the post-war period,” or, “Artist Y is widely regarded for her beautiful work”). Most readers will see right through trumped-up language …The best way to maximize the power of a good bio is to try to educate, not “hard-sell,” your reader. Numerous studies have shown that the hard sell doesn’t work, especially for younger audiences (read: tech-savvy collectors), who respond most positively to simple and authentic messages.

[…]

Instead of trying to impress other curators, academics, and galleries, focus on your audience of new collectors who may be completely unfamiliar with your artists. Readers want to glean information from your writing, and the best way to do that is to use simple language. A good rule of thumb is to impart one idea per sentence.

About Joe Patti

In addition to writing for ArtHacker, I have been writing the blog, Butts in the Seats (buttsseats.com) since 2004.
I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)
I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Across my career I have worked at University of Hawaii-Leeward Community College, University of Central Florida, Asolo Theater, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Appel Farm Arts and Music Center and numerous other places both defunct and funky.

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