Multiple Pages on Writing Concisely

I’m an overly precise person. Like, an extremely precise person, by which I mean I’m obsessed with clarity and precision, more so than that I’m uniquely good at making myself understood. This obsession with precision often requires I sacrifice conciseness – it’s extremely difficult to gain the requisite confidence that I’ve really, truly explained an idea in a small number of words, because words are always fuzzy. It’s easy to imagine someone with a slightly different context hearing the same words and arriving at the wrong idea.

Because of this, I’ve always had something of a distrust of concisely expressed ideas. Zippy one-liners might seem powerful at first, but the very fact that they are shortened means they cannot be relied upon.

Take, for instance, the common saying that “opposites attract.” This feels like a strong saying – we can all call to mind examples of it matching our experience well, and moreso, we can think of moments where something did not make sense unless we permitted ourselves to handwave our confusion this way. “Why on earth would people with such different interests want to have a relationship together? Eh, you know, opposites attract.”

The first problem with this is that it requires more shared context than typical words. “Opposites attract” is generally understood to not describe some kind of physical law, but a child hearing the phrase for the first time could be forgiven for associating it with, say, the way opposing magnets attract each other, and feeling it was stronger than it was. In contrast, “sometimes people find differences exotic or interesting enough to energize them more than a partner who simply seconded their thinking” is a lot more accurate, but a lot less catchy.

The second problem with sayings like this is that, even among people who have the right context, these kinds of sayings lack predictive power. Sure, you can claim that you expect two people to form a relationship because “opposites attract,” but what about “birds of a feather flock together,” and various other sayings which predict the reverse? Because of the simplicity of these shortened aphorisms, all of the necessary context has been stripped, so it’s impossible to reliably understand when you can trust that aphorism to apply, aside from intuition.

That said, I recently encountered an idea which has somewhat changed my mind about the value of these phrases. The name of that idea is “concept handles,” which itself is…a concept handle.

To put it less tautologically, a “concept handle” is a quick, easy, and memorable phrase which directly summons a key idea. We already have many of these in our repertoire – any word, for instance, is arguably a concept handle. The key idea is that ideas are too nuanced to always point to precisely, so we derive value from having a shorthand to expedite things. As opposed to my original thinking – that words are vague but sufficiently long explanations are clear – the idea of “concept handles” permits a continuum of vagueness – ranging from short utterances with many possible meanings (“walk”), to the still-fairly-brief, but more narrowed down (“sample bias”) to the extremely complex (this blog post.) This insight may seem obvious, but it’s been extremely helpful for me as I work to develop a more concise writing style (at least, in some parts of my life…this blog may be a holdout on that front for now.)

The important thing to realize about concept handles, though, is that like words, they are pointers, not the final ideas. “Opposites attract” is a useful pointer to the shared understanding that different people sometimes are enamored with those very differences in each other; but one should never allow themselves to look to the individual words “opposites” and “attract” for deeper insight into that idea, any more than someone could predict the meaning of the word “potatoes” based on the individual letters the word consists of.

To help myself remember this, I try to distinguish between concept handles and concept triggers (which I sometimes just call “triggers” or, if I’m being less rigorous, “memes.”) The difference is that concept handles are useful only to refer to an already understood idea, while a concept trigger is explicitly crafted to have explanatory power.

For instance, when thinking about our elevator pitch for Modulate, Carter and I played with a wide variety of ways to describe our technology. We discovered that there already existed a concept handle in the gaming space – “voice skins” – but we were able to confirm it was only a handle by sharing the phrase with those outside of gaming – many of whom were confused or even offput by the phrasing. So we’ve learned to distinguish investors who have the background to understand that concept handle (and who therefore can skip the initial introduction) from those who need a more thorough overview. Even for the latter group, though, we wanted to find a short phrase that could do the work, instead of taking many minutes to get there. My most recent iteration of this “concept trigger” is “emotive and realistic voice replacement.” It’s obviously not a perfect descriptor – it’s not precise nor complete – but most people I share that phrase with are able to gain enough understanding to move forward.

These two tools – concept handles and concept triggers – are both important for becoming more concise, but are useful in different circumstances, so before diving into using either, make sure to get a decent grasp on how much shared context you have with the person you’re speaking with.

One final note, which perhaps belongs in my user guide – I personally collect concept handles and use them extensively in my own thinking. (In this context, I’ll sometimes call them “frameworks”, but keep them distinct from a separate category of “models” – handles are useful ideas for some contexts, models are complete, generalized theories which I expect to be reliable everywhere.) I’ll sometimes slip into using these aloud – I’ve had people remark, with emotions ranging from curiosity to annoyance, about my tendency to spout phrases like “Schelling point,” “Chesterton fence,” “tragedy of the commons,” “activation energy,” etc – all of which are clearly handles rather than triggers, since someone lacking the requisite background could never predict the meaning from the words alone. If I’m doing this, and you don’t have the context to follow, please don’t be shy about letting me know! I’m not looking to use jargon to make anyone feel excluded – and your unawareness of the meaning of these handles doesn’t mean you’re not capable of wielding the concepts themselves! – so if you call me on it I’ll be more than happy to dive into the concept behind the handle with you.

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