We overwhelm when we overshare what we know about a topic.

Overwhelm, confuse and even bore. We try to include so much that it ends up cluttered and confusing – for us as well as our audience. We start out wanting to help people with everything we know. So we keep adding. More and more until we’ve drifted way off course.

How do we find our way back? Better still, how do we prevent getting lost in the first place?

I’ll answer that in a minute but first a slight detour into deep space…

Introducing Sarah Downey.

Sarah is a Boston based venture capitalist and her passion for ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and startups gave me the aha moment that led to this post.

Since last November, Sarah has been writing a blog series called ‘Startup Trek’, working her way through the old tv series to pull out a lesson for startups from each episode. In an interview with Tallie Gabriel on the podcast Unthinkable with Jay Acunzo, Sarah admitted that it hasn’t always been easy to draw useful conclusions from the show. Watching episode seven, Sarah was struggling until she got to the part where Captain Luc Piccard reprimanded crew member Data for going overboard in answering a question.

Lo and behold the insight and the blog post: ‘Make your point up front; don’t babble’

And that, I thought, can be a useful question for keeping my own writing on track: What’s your point?

It’s a horribly rude question blurted out to someone who’s being long-winded and boring. But as a tactic to anchor us to a useful, clear and succinct message? Perfect.

I tested it recently on a speech that had to be no more than seven minutes.

First time I read it through, the speech went for eleven minutes. I tried to read faster and cut the pauses but that didn’t bring it back to the required length. It wasn’t until I asked myself objectively, What’s your point in this speech? that I realised the backstory had to go.

Part of me fought it. I’d enjoyed writing the backstory and felt like I’d done a good job. But when I measured it against making my point, it had no place in my speech. Keeping the backstory would have been for me, not my audience. 

Despite our intentions, forcing too much into our content is the opposite of generous.

It’s self-centred because it’s more about what we want people to know, than what they might need to know.

We help our audience far more if we can clearly explain the point we’re trying to make even before we start writing. If we keep asking as we’re writing: What’s my point? If we ruthlessly edit out anything that doesn’t support our point.

And when we do that?

That’s generosity.