“Brevity is confidence, length is fear.”
This guiding principle inspired our latest Walker Webcast guest, Mike Allen, Axios co-founder and co-author of Smart Brevity. He joined Willy to discuss how to communicate effectively by saying more with less. Everyone — regardless of their position in corporate America — can benefit from these lessons learned!
Mike’s background is in “the traditional media world” of political reporters at newspapers. But for so long, he explains to Willy, “the incentives for journalists were the wrong things.”
He talks about how he based his first morning newsletter on the idea of conversation and communication. “Don’t think of yourself as a journalist but as a human connecting with another human,” he recalls. Furthermore, the average person only engages with a piece of content for around 20 seconds.
This newsletter, Political Playbook, became famed political media source POLITICO. Then Mike, Jim VandeHei, and Roy Schwartz decided to “flip this idea.” Instead of starting content from the perspective of its creators, why not think first about the people reading, viewing, and listening to media? Then create an experience just for them.
This idea, and how it played out into Axios, was completely novel for the news consumer, Mike explains. In Smart Brevity, he and his co-authors detail all the tips and tricks, with the goal of helping readers “break this wall” and find their own voice.
Mike shares a few examples. To communicate more powerfully, figure out what you want to say, think of a sharp way to communicate it, and then just say it. “In other words, think about thinking, not typing.”
“Sharp communication leads to sharp strategy,” Mike declares, and notes that these lessons are applicable to any part of corporate America or sales.
Another tip: When giving a presentation, focus on images, not sentences. Having just a couple of words on a slide will help your listeners focus on the big ideas and remain engaged throughout your presentation, Mike explains. Willy illustrates by sharing the strategy used in some of his recent communications and the “the unbelievable effect” this advice had.
Mike then talks about how energy giant BP put Smart Brevity into action. When BP’s press secretary started embracing the philosophy, he found that more people read the company’s communications and absorbed their messages.
Communication is always evolving, according to Mike. He talks about how the pandemic has changed the way we all communicate. He also discusses the role of technology. For example, the data science at Axios used all of its content to develop algorithms that help anybody communicate with smart brevity. “The shortest words in the English language often have the biggest impact on the brain.”
Mike reminds listeners that all profits of Smart Brevity will go to the Axios Fellowship Program, which aims to recruit and maintain more diverse writers into media and journalism. “Inclusive communication is essential for effective communication.” Mike then wraps up the conversation with his political predictions for the next few years.
01:17 Willy introduces Mike Allen
07:11 POLITICO and writing “like a human”
11:15 Why the first 20 seconds matter
17:23 Writing for the audience
28:14 Reading out loud and using emojis
38:29 Strong responses and the power of smart brevity
42:52 Gamifying editing and why organizations must adapt
51:17 Cox Enterprises and inclusive communication
Willy Walker: Terrific! Happy Wednesday and welcome to another Walker Webcast. It is such a joy for me to have my two guests, Mike Allen, and Jim VandeHei, with me today. Jim had something come up and so at the beginning, it's going to be just Mike. And then if Jim comes in, we will include him in the discussion. They are here to discuss their new book, Smart Brevity, which hit bookstores last week and is an absolute fantastic read on how to indoctrinate smart brevity into your life: at work, in your writing, in your communications with family, friends and colleagues, and in your presentations, whether at the office, church, club or a high school reunion. Quick bios of Mike and Jim, and we will then dive into their book, their careers, their success with Politico and Axios, and some fantastic, actionable tips on how to better communicate in a digital world.
Jim VandeHei is co-founder, CEO, and chairman of Axios and co-founder and former CEO of Politico. He was a journalist for Roll Call, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. He won the Ben Bradlee Editor of the Year Award in 2015. Jim is from Wisconsin, which, if he joins us, will become evident during the discussion.
Mike Allen is co-founder of Axios and previously co-founder of Politico, where he pioneered the morning newsletter, Politico Playbook. Before that, he was a journalist at Time magazine, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Richmond Times Dispatch. Mike hails from Orange County, California, which will not be evident throughout most of this discussion. He is also a graduate of Washington and Lee University, which I think last time I checked is the number one school with the most graduates at Walker & Dunlop. And so, Mike, great to have another W&Ler having some input on W&D.
I was going to start this interview, Mike, asking you what being born at Long Beach Memorial Hospital was like and how it influenced your career, but that might not lead to a smart brevity discussion. So, let's start here. The genius behind Politico, Axios and your book Smart Brevity, from my standpoint, is your customer focus. Explain to us how traditional media places like the Washington Post or The New York Times are oriented versus the organizations you and Jim have founded and so successfully run?
Mike Allen: Willy, that's a great question. Jim and I were the perpetrators of it. We were newspaper political reporters. We were the worst offenders. I'll come back to that in 2 seconds. But first, I wanted to say how happy I am that W&L represents there and Willy, I wanted to pause to tell you how much Jim and I have been looking forward to this, because your story, your focus on family and fitness is very inspiring and we've been interested in you and inspired by you. And so now I am very excited about it. So, thank you.
Willy Walker: Well, first of all, you, and my mom both have been at Time magazine, it was super fun and is a neat connection point. And I thought your email back to me saying that my mom was a legend of sorts at Time magazine was about as nice the thing I've ever heard my mother be called or someone comment on her given her 20 year career at Time magazine covering the White House as the White House photographer, which many people listening wouldn't have known if I hadn't just given that descriptor on it. But beyond that, the way that you and I connected was the Wall Street Journal article on Fit CEOs and how in that article they called me out for having an eight pack, not a six pack. And you ending up adding me to your Axios morning brief commenting on that article, which is one of the questions I have for you, Mike, is how do you do that every morning, 365 days a year? I mean, it's my understanding you don't sleep a lot, which gives you a lot of time to read. But how do you pull together your Axios AM?
Mike Allen: Thank you, Willy, and Diana Walker — she was absolutely one of the greats. The morning newsletter I do, Axios AM, was part of the genesis of our book Smart Brevity. So, as I mentioned to you, Jim, and I, our third coauthor and our co-founder of Axios, Roy Schwartz, Roy worked for Gallup and so has always made the world a better place. But Jim and I were paid basically to produce work that when you work at a newspaper, when you're an old school political reporter, that the longer your story, the better chance to get on the front page of the section. The longer the story, maybe it will be on the Sunday front page. If your story is even longer, you might be entered for a prize, and if it's super-duper long, it might win a prize. And why is that? For so long, the incentives were all the wrong things. All of the media out there was designed to help the journalist, help the publisher, make you keep time on site at an exact time that no one has time.
And so, when Roy Schwarz, Jim VandeHei and I started Axios five or six years ago, we decided to flip that. The first two words of the Axios manifesto are “Audience first,” and that is think first about the person who's going to be consuming your speech, or your Zoom that you're leading, a memo or an email. Well, I love the fact that you mentioned at the top — class reunions, because the magic of smart brevity is so applicable to anyone who's listening, whether they are a student, whether they are an intern, whether they're the day one employee, whether they're an aspiring leader, or whether they’re a mogul like yourself. Smart Brevity can help you communicate more efficiently, crisply, and be heard through this crazy fog of words that comes at all of us.
Willy Walker: So, I want to back up for a moment, Mike to Politico Playbook, because I think Politico Playbook starts you down this path toward smart brevity. But you came up with the Politico Playbook, where you would put together a morning briefing, basically and in 2010, the New York Times Magazine had a cover article on you, and the headline was The Man the White House Wakes Up To. Talk for a moment about Playbook, how that was launched, and then we'll take that into why you couldn't just take Politico and turn it into Axios, the creation of Axios, and then Smart Brevity.
Mike Allen: Yeah. Thank you, Willy. Part of the genesis of Playbook is something that will serve your listeners, and that is that the email that I wrote at Politico for ten years. Sad as it is, I have written a morning newsletter every morning, 365 days a year for 15-16 years now. And that gives you a great perspective on what people want to consume. And Politico Playbook, my first newsletter was based on something that your listeners will find very resonant and applicable, and that is that I thought of it as a human conversation with the people that read my newsletter. That is a very actionable tip for all of your listeners on how to communicate in smart brevity and that is to imagine that you're a human talking to a human. Imagine that. Because Willy, here's the reality: that when you and I are sitting together, having a cup of Irish coffee, there are social cues that keep me from being bored. We're having breakfast or happy hour — I'm not going to use SAT words, what my Grandma Powers called $10 words. I'm not going to use fancy words or phrases. The other day, one of our reporters wrote “aforementioned.,” I'm like, “you would never say that in a bar!” I don't repeat myself when I'm talking to you person to person. I don't tell you things that you already know. Because I want you to like me, and I want you to have me back for breakfast again. But then Willy, think about it. All of us, journalists especially, all of us, when we get behind a keyboard, we do all of those things. And so, the very actionable tip that I learned from Politico Playbook was don't think of yourself as like a journalist typing a newsletter. Think of yourself as a human who is trying to connect with another human. And this could be a newsletter for your school. This could be an update for your team. This could be something for a nonprofit. However, you're trying to communicate, think of the other person as if you're talking to them. And our hack for this, Willy, is to read it out loud. Whatever comes out of your laptop, whatever comes out of your office, whatever you're trying to get someone to engage with — read it out loud. And that is a magical process because you right away realize if you're using those $10 words, you right away realize if what you're saying is kind of muddled and mushy, because a reality is: that if you don't know what you're trying to say, the audience has no hope of doing it. And the last thing Willy is you realize if you're too long, if you're boring yourself when you're reading out loud, imagine what you're doing to the person who's on the other end.
Willy Walker: So, one of the stats, Mike, that came out of some of my reading on how you ended up creating Axios was that you and Jim looked at page views on the articles that you are writing in Politico and saw that 80% of the people didn't make it past page one. And so that's kind of the first glaring thing of, “hey, I've gone and written 1,200 words, and we're seeing that 80% of people don't even get beyond page one.” Then you created Politico Pro, which was to those who don't know, kind of a deep dove from an industry standpoint. So, if you were in the healthcare industry, you could subscribe to Politico Pro and Politico Pro inside of healthcare gave you a really deep dive on that. And what the data came back on was that you had behind that summary the ability to go even deeper and only 5% of the people went deeper for more information, even when you were segmented into their industry, which I also found amazing. So, one of the big things about Politico was that you started to really analyze the data on what people really wanted to find, correct?
Mike Allen: You nailed it Willy, those were the light bulb moments, because what we recognized was that all these beautiful words that we were so proud of and spent so much time on, that no one was reading them, not even my mom. That when you dug into that data you're talking about, people weren't reading the long stories. The light bulb moment Willy was, and I think that your listeners will relate to this. If you think about a podcast, if you think about an industry meeting, a Zoom, a sermon, any piece of content that you consume: if you think about it Willy, if you have one takeaway, if there's one memorable thing in any one of those experiences, that's a win, right? And so the flip side of that is, if you're the person communicating, if you're writing an email, if you're writing a letter, if you are writing an update or a report for your boss or for your team, the reality is that they will remember one thing that at best, one thing will come across from your piece of content. So, what smart brevity does and what the Smart Brevity book will help your listeners do is lean into that and recognize that there is one thing.
The key to smart brevity is figuring out what that one thing is. Honing it. Have a conversation. Talk to the person next to you. Talk to your significant other about it so that you know that's clear. Then this is the trade secret, this is the spoiler: then just put it at the top of your letter, your memo, or your email. Don't waste time by saying “I hope things are going well despite these crazy times.” That does nothing for your listener. Another piece of data that was illuminating on this is to go to some of the greatest news organizations in the world, the places that we all depend on for great foreign coverage, science coverage, and other types of coverage. 20 seconds, 20 seconds is the amount of time that the average person engages with the average piece of content. So, if you don't grab me at the top, you've lost me.
Willy Walker: So, you’d identified these trends, if you will, from what the consumer wanted while you all were at Politico, and yet you decided to jump out and start Axios. Why couldn't you just take Politico and make it Axios?
Mike Allen: Politico is awesome at what they do, they cover politics and we're very proud of them. The big idea behind Axios was to do a completely redesigned, completely new experience for the news consumer. A great big organization like that with 500 people. When we left, it was much more than that now. That's not going to change overnight. But overnight we wanted to create an experience designed all about the reader, the viewer, the listener. And so, we designed a totally new format that became smart brevity. The architecture, the tips, and tricks, the how-to are all in the book Smart Brevity that we said every story is going to start as one iPhone screen then we're going to give you the power to go deeper. But we're going to start with an efficient, cleanly reading experience. For 99% of content, an efficient experience is the best one.
A great example of this that we have in the book is when I talked to Mark Smith, a middle school teacher who is in Falls Church, Virginia, very close to where I am. I live in Arlington, Virginia. Axios headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia. That's where I am at the moment, at Axios HQ. I talked to Mark Smith and when he would send emails home to parents, he discovered that they either skipped his key points, couldn't remember his key points or weren't sure what the key points were because they kept asking him things that he'd already answered in his email. He gets my morning newsletter, Axios AM, and he saw that I put the key points in bold and Willy, he tried that, and it was magical that all of a sudden there was much better take up among his parents and what he was trying to say in his email. And here's the magic and here's the takeaway for your listeners is it wasn't so much that the key points were in bold. It was that he was thinking about them, and he singled out what those key points were. Then once he knew what they were, it was easier for him to emphasize them and put them up top. That's leaning into this idea that people are going to remember one thing, so don't give them eight. Don't let them pick. Make your point. Make it clearly. Start by the top. Grab me, have a clever tease. Have a way to get my attention. Tell me what's new. Tell me why it matters. Maybe back it up with an example, some statistics and if you want the power to go deeper, link to one of the great reports that your colleague does or link to some original source material. But that architecture is a very powerful way to communicate one to many. Whether you are a person who is communicating up or communicating down, communicating in, communicating out.
Willy Walker: So Axios was founded on sort of a premise of short, smart, simple, and direct. Sounds really easy, very difficult in practice. As you quote in your book, Mark Twain saying, “I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” How do you take your writers, your incredible researchers, and get them to basically write the way that you have both described in this discussion as well as the way you do the morning briefing, the Axios AM every day?
Mike Allen: Willy, it's a great point. We asked them to think about the audience. Think about the person. On the other end. It was funny. Even Pope Francis talked about how the nuns suffer from how long the homilies are and said that people should cut back on the homily. Because think about it this way. A minister or a priest has something very, very important to say, but if we're asleep, it's not going to have its desired effect. So, we have a great story in our book, Smart Brevity, about a pastor in Alexandria, Virginia, David Glade. Jim VandeHei, my co-author, the CEO of Axios, was sitting in church and David Glade was talking about some of the advice he gave his kids. And that advice, you can boil it down to five words. Do the next right thing. Do the next right thing. How's that for smart brevity and a great way to live? But Willy, consider all the books he could have quoted or experts or all the things that he could have said, but instead he said it in a memorable way. We're talking about it years later. And here's the secret: he spent time on the front end thinking about it like something is memorable, as do the next right thing by words that doesn't come out the first time. That's the product of work and thinking. And so that's what we ask our journalists to do. And what I urge your listeners to do as part of communicating more powerfully themselves is to do the thinking on the front end, to figure out what you want to say. Think of a sharp, memorable way to communicate it and then just say it. Spell it out a little bit and then just stop. And Willy, the way you can boil this down is “Start by thinking, not typing.”
Willy Walker: So, on that, in the Axios headquarters, if you walked out of your office where you are today doing this — on the wall in Axios is a saying that says, “Brevity is confidence, length is fear.”
Mike Allen: Yeah, that's exactly right. It's written in an old reporter's notebook that goes back to the beginning of Axios. The reason that that idea is so powerful: “Brevity is confidence, length is fear.” That’s something that I think you'll agree with from your professional life, is that an awful lot of people are faking it. Willy, would you buy the idea that even a lot of people at the top of the game are faking it?
Willy Walker: Yeah. I mean, it was interesting when you were on Squawk Box last week, on Wednesday, just after you was the CEO of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, being asked about donating all the proceeds of the company to a 501c4 is going to basically give away all the money to try and protect the environment. And in that, he was asked directly, do you think that there are a lot of people who are trying to basically cheat on these ESG goals to be more than they are? And he said it very directly. “Sure, there are plenty of corporations that say one thing and do something else, and we do need some standards on that.” But yes, to your point. Sure.
Mike Allen: And Willy, one of the biggest ways that we fake it is with words. We just throw the words out because we think it's going to hide the fact that we either don't really know the material, or don't really know the solution or don't have the solution. That's why the long letter is easier to write, because you haven't really thought about it. You haven't really done the work so that you understand the context, you understand the nuance. That's part of the magic of smart brevity, as it has to be both smart and brief. And the smart part is that if you've really thought it through and can communicate it clearly, you can speak to me like another human being. You don't have to sacrifice context and nuance, all of that can be baked in. You actually have a very sophisticated idea, but you're communicating it in a sharp, clear, memorable, digestible way.
Willy Walker: So, this book, Smart Brevity right here, which I would strongly suggest to anyone who's watching to go out and get this, everyone on my senior team has read it and lots of our clients are also going to get a copy of it after this Webcast goes out. It's 28,002 words, Mike, who is actually shorter than Jamie Dimon's annual letter that he publishes at JPMorgan. And I know that Axios and Axios HQ have worked with JPMorgan to take Jamie's 32,000 words and make it far more digestible, understandable. But I found it to be amazing that this was 28,002 words in your book, which is shorter than what Jamie writes every year, which obviously, like Warren Buffett's annual letter, is widely regarded as one of these annual things that you must read to get your arms around what's happening in the world we live in. And so, I'm not in any way trying to disparage Jamie's letter because I read it cover to cover. But at the same time, it's also interesting that JPMorgan understood that there are some learnings from what you've done on smart brevity that they could adopt to take Jamie's letter and communicate it to their client base in a little bit more digestible form.
Mike Allen: Willy, that's right. Fun fact about those 28,002 words, our publisher Workman, who's been a great partner in this. They told us that that was the exact minimum number of words that would create a book that you could put between hardcovers and could buy on Amazon or buy on https://smartbrevity.com/ or buy from great independent booksellers. So that's why we have one of the shortest books in the history of books.
On Jamie Dimon, we have a fun chapter in here, we call it “Shining Dimon,” and it talks about how we boiled down at JP Morgan's request. Some people wanted the full blast Jamie, right? The full 32,000 words. But to try to get it read beyond Wall Street and people like yourself are going to read the whole thing. But if you get beyond the financial industry and beyond real estate, you're going to want a shorter version. You're going to reach more people. And so, we took Jamie's vision for the future, as it says, and put it in a smart brevity format, put it in that Core Four that we talked about, where you (1) start with a tease that's going to get my attention. (2) You’re going to tell me what's new. (3) You’re going to tell me why it matters. (4) You’re going to give me the power to go deeper. That smart brevity architecture proved to have a whole new, wider audience for Jamie Dimon's letter, which had been themes on the street, and now his vision for the future was shared even more widely. So, it shows how by using smart brevity, by communicating in a way that's going to resonate with the audience, that will give you more power, that you will be heard amid this blast fog of words that comes out of all of us.
Willy Walker: And I find that so interesting, Mike, in the sense that I think a bunch of people listening to this would sit there and go, well, that's kind of the way that Axios has been able to crack the code in the media industry. But it doesn't apply to me. It doesn't apply to my company. One of the things you state in the book very clearly is that sharp communications equals sharp strategy. And as I think about investors in Walker & Dunlop when I go meet with analysts and people like that. If I'm rambling and foggy, as you say, sharp communication equals a sharp strategy. Foggy communication, you're basically lost. And if I'm foggy in my communication, even not just with investors, but with our strategy, a salesperson at Walker & Dunlop meeting with a client who isn't sharp and crisp and gets a little off. And so, the lessons inside of smart brevity are literally applicable to any kind of point in the chain inside of corporate America.
Mike Allen: That's such a great point. And this can apply to something as simple as asking for a raise. Now, you're not going to be asking for a raise, but plenty of people ask you for one, and we tend to dig ourselves deeper. Like if you're asking for a raise, my advice and you're given more raises than I have, so I'll let you critique this, but here’s what I would say: what I've done, what I'm going to do, and then I would just stop. Whereas the human tendency is to keep running our mouths, dig ourselves deeper, maybe even talk ourselves out of the race. Like, how accurate is that?
Willy Walker: Yeah. I mean, without a doubt, people will sit there and they'll first of all, they'll try and couch it in a lot of other things rather than coming out and explicitly stating it. As you say, “Brevity is confidence, length is fear.” So, if you think you've got to take 15 hours to get to the punchline, it's likely your audience isn't there anymore. And they found 15 things to refute in your lead in before you actually get to it, rather than just coming out and saying, this is what I think I'm worth.
Mike Allen: I think that's great. You also see this in sales, (and I'd be interested in your view on this) but what I sometimes see is a salesperson who has a great product, and they maybe even have a great wind up and they've made the sale. I'm watching the body language of the prospect, the person they're talking to, and they're ready to sign. But then the person keeps talking and they raise so many questions that eventually the prospect says, “Well, I'll think about it.” Whereas if they just would have stopped, they would have walked out with an order.
Willy Walker: No doubt — happens all the time, happens all the time. And it's actually painful to watch, as you know very well. And look, you've bought and sold companies, you've hired people, you've bought services from people where you were ready to go 10 minutes into the meeting and all of a sudden you're 40 minutes in the meeting. You've thought about 15 other alternatives and other things you could be doing with your time, and all of a sudden that sale is now gone. And so, I do think that that's one of the big issues. But I also Mike, would push you on this for a second because people could read your book and sort of say, “You got to be really direct, you gotta get right to the point and kind of hit him right between the eyes.” And you're very straightforward in saying that, you know, your communication can't miss the flow. It can't miss the emotional piece of it. And that if it is all just black and white and just kind of bullet pointed out there, you've lost what Mike Allen has to add to it. And so being able to keep that cadence, if you will, even though you're using bullet points, is super important. Am I correct?
Mike Allen: But that's so well put, Willy. One thing that you'll see in Smart Brevity is that we really emphasize that you are a human, not an algorithm. So funny story about this. This is where reading something out loud, once you've typed it, once it's prepared. And so, this could be a plan for a Zoom meeting. This could be a PowerPoint deck. This could be a letter. You're writing to someone; this could be an email. This could be any kind of an update. Part of the power of reading it out loud is that you make sure that you're sounding like a human and not a robot. So, the other night I was reading tests of one of our newsletters and I called the editor and I said, “I know a secret. You did not read the lead of that newsletter out loud, because if you had, there would be paramedics there who are doing CPR on you because it would be so out of breath.” That's where having a smart, sharp idea that you're excited and passionate about, that you believe in, and then communicating it in a human voice, using everyday words that you and I would use over chips and salsa. That's the power. But the power does not come in a number of bolds or a number of bullets like those are elements of architecture that help you connect with your audience, connect with your reader. Because one of the things that we discovered as we dug into the brain science and eye tracking studies that have been done over the years. Some of that we discovered right away is that any time you encounter a big glob of text, a big block of text — Willy, you remember the print newspaper days when you would open the paper and it was just the sea of text. As reporters, we just got a notebook dump because that's what it was. We just took our notes, typed them, and they put them in the paper. That's not thinking about the audience. And so having ways to break up your text and that can be with using your key points in bold like that middle school teacher did, having some bullets, having some numbers, even like emojis. And the way that we use emojis is not OMG. It's to help you see that there is a logical architecture to what's in front of you. So, I like the bull's eye, the direct hit emoji, because it shows you a key point. I like the brain when we say explaining how something works, we'll use the brain emoji. I like a light bulb for a new idea to zoom in and really get detailed. I'll use a microscope to zoom out and I might use a telescope to give you the big picture. I might use a frame. And so those are always just a signal to your reader: I've thought this through. This is worth your time. There's a very logical division here. I recognize that if all I do is throw words at you, you're going to tune out, you’re going to miss it all. And so, I'm breaking it up into digestible chunks that let you soak in the big ideas and come away. And whether it's a teacher, whether it's a minister, whether it's a businessperson, or whether it's someone with a nonprofit or a college, come away and say, “Thank you for making me smarter today.”
Willy Walker: So, Mike, the comment on emojis is so good before I get there, because I want to tell you what I did this weekend after reading that in your book. But before I get to that, I just want to put forth your comments on PowerPoint presentations. There's not a person listening today who has not sat in a presentation either from a colleague, a consultant, or someone pitching you to buy something who is not sat there and wanted to pull out every piece of hair they had on their head because someone was already reading through a PowerPoint presentation of reading lines. And you're very clear in saying, get rid of the words, get two images and convey images and then talk to the images in your presentation. And so few people do that. And yet it's one of the big takeaways that I have from the book. You're going to one of the graphs in the book, correct?
Mike Allen: Yeah. So smart brevity your presentations and there's a whole chapter that will help you with making a powerful presentation. And you're right about the text on the slides. So, we talked about how we know that if you see a bunch of text, you tune out. Well, that's just equally true if it's on a slide. And so, if I'm talking and I have a slide behind me that's full of words, one of two things is going to happen. Either you're going to tune me out because you're probably going to try to process all the words on the slides or the slide is completely wasted. If you just put a couple of words — four or five, six words on the slide that will help the listener focus on what big ideas are, they are going to know what their takeaway is. It's there almost like a frame for you that they know that you have thought through your presentation that what you're going to be presenting is worthy of their time and they're going to be listening to your talk track rather than trying to sort through the type. It's all about signaling to your audience that you're being respectful of their time.
So, you mentioned that we put on this book Smart Brevity, that it's 28,002 words. And as you know and thank you for reading Axios AM and PM and Finish Line and our other great Axios newsletter. As you've noticed, at the top of every newsletter, we give a number of minutes and a number of words. That does two things. One, it disciplines the writer that it shows me what I'm asking of my audience, and almost always I can rein in what I've originally planned. But the second thing Willy is simply to signal to you, I respect your time. I know that I'm asking you to take time out of a busy day, and I am disappointing myself by putting what the number of the time is there, because the sweet spot to get into smart brevity will help you do that. The smartest sweet spot to get into is “I won't waste your time.” “I won't insult your intelligence.” And if your audience, whether it's your boss, whether it's your team, whether it's internal stakeholders, whether it's external stakeholders, whether you are giving, as you said, a class reunion speech, if you are respectful of the audience, talk to them intelligently. Talk to them like humans, have one big idea and make it clear. Start there. Don't go through a lot of blind alleys. You're going to be a memorable and popular speaker-writer.
Willy Walker: On that and staying on the speaking piece, you mentioned in the book very clearly that there's a reason that the average TED talk is 16 minutes long. And I listened to Jim's TED talk and it's 15 minutes and 2 seconds long. We have an event going on in a couple of weeks at W&D and someone came to me and said, our keynote is going to be a fireside chat with X person. And I said, well, an hour-long conversation, a fireside chat probably loses a lot of people. There are probably four or five people that we could interview in 10-to-15-minute segments. Let's think about breaking it up, and I'm not sure he'd be able to do it because I said to the person who's doing the moderating, this is really going to push you. I don't know how we kind of flow people through from the seat on and I also believe that panels of four people are a complete waste of time. I've never sat in a conference and listened to four people on stage do anything but just waste my time. But you talk about that. You also, you know, your Morning Brief, which is your podcast is 12 minutes long. And then I ought to be able to read your morning brief in somewhere around 2 to 3 minutes. So, I mean, like time is of the essence.
So back to the emoji thing that I just want to talk about. So, I read your book and I'm sitting there and I'm texting with some people and I'm not verbose, but I write a bunch on text and this weekend I said, I'm going to try and use emojis rather than words this weekend in texting with people. And the responses were unbelievable, Mike! Like instead of writing three sentences to say something, I go emoji, a couple of words, an emoji. And immediately the person comes back with these big fireworks going off. And I was like, this stuff works. They're like, happy that I can express it. But the piece to it that I thought was so interesting was I had to really stop to think about what I wanted to say with a picture. That's exactly what you're saying that it's hard. Like, if I just wanted to write what was in my mind, I just text away. “Hey, I'll see you at the drugstore then and it's going to be really fun.” But instead, if I could sit there and type (emoji) drugstore equals I don't know, coke in a big smile and this. They get exactly what I'm trying to convey in a couple images and it's wildly more impactful.
Mike Allen: Yeah, so true. And you mentioned the firecracker. I like the rocket is good. What looks like a cannonball could be a bomb. So, you want to be careful about that? What in your little experiment did you come up with a favorite emoji that you found to be very expressive, efficient, useful, muscular?
Willy Walker: You know, it's funny. The one that I use more than I have in the past is the thankful one with two things together, saying thank you for that. And I think it's probably nice because as much as I say thanks a lot, I don't think these people were expecting me to say thanks for like meeting at the grocery store or whatever the case may be.
Mike Allen: Such a good point. To go back to what's to implement in email. I have a funny story about email and how this is the ultimate and smart brevity. The first president that I covered was President George W. Bush, and his chief of staff was Andy Card, and he was called Secretary Card because he'd been Secretary of transportation. And all through the time that Secretary Card was the chief of staff. One day we'll be able to see this in the National Archives. Every email that he got, one of the most busiest email inboxes in the world. He only had three responses. If anybody on his staff emailed Andy Card, they got one of three responses: Yes, no, or see me. That's smart brevity, and that is muscular.
Willy Walker: So, talk for a moment about that. That was in the White House. Now take it to Mike Morrell at British Petroleum because I think that BP adopted not only smart brevity, they're avid users of Axios, but they're also avid users of Axios HQ, which I want to talk about in two seconds. But talk for a moment about the Bob Gates at the DOD, Mike Morrell at BP. Bottom line up front, ITK all that from him, because I think the way that BP incorporated all that in and some of the smart brevity things make people understand you really can take this and work it into your daily communication strategy.
Mike Allen: So, BP and Geoff Morrell were real pioneers of this and quickly became evangelists of it. So, what happened with BP was that one of their executives said to us, we love the Axios style, like we love the Axios newsletter. And Geoff Morrell, who was somebody who had been the Pentagon press secretary and a former ABC News White House reporter realized that the Axios format was very popular and powerful inside. And he said, what if I try it? So, we worked with BP and that was the birth of Axios HQ software that we have that helps you communicate in smart brevity. But originally it was just Jeff and his team with email, and what they discovered was that you put one piece of content, a morning update, anything from HR, anything that used to be long and long winded that if you put it in smart brevity, that suddenly there is a huge spike in the open rate, there's a huge spike in the take up. The people know what's being read instead of skipping over. So, they added this team by team. They started with an update just for the CEO's leadership team and grew. It grew, grew until it was all across the company. They found that so many more people were reading their internal communications. So many people knew what the company wanted them to know, that it just became a very powerful tool. And the heads of other divisions, other functions, as they said at BP, were all coming to Geoff, all looking at him. He came to be seen as this great seer and this pioneer, because this form of communication was so popular. And I just have to mention one of his former bosses, Secretary Robert Gates, who helped influence Geoff's style. The military has a great expression, and it really works, but very few people do it. So, the military teaches, as you said, BLUF (bottom line up front). It's great in theory, it's rarely practiced, but bottom line up front works for all of us because given the punch line, give them the one thing that you want to remember is the one thing that we know is that they'll only remember one thing, put it up top, and you'll have a much better chance of succeeding with your communication.
Willy Walker: I love the BLUF tip. I know you also gamify some of your editing talk for a moment about how you gamify your editing. I thought this was fantastic.
Mike Allen: Yeah. Thank you, Willy. And this is Axios HQ, which is the software that we have for organizations. Anybody who wants to communicate one to many. And you open up Axios HQ and it gives you the template like I have when I start my newsletter in the morning. It helps you communicate in muscular, memorable, smart brevity. So, what my Axios HQ colleagues did was they took the data scientists there, took the whole library of Axios content from six years, and they used that to develop algorithms that can help any of your viewers of this Webcast communicate in smart brevity. So, if you open up and it helps you write a strong subject line. It helps you write a sharp tease. It helps you make sure that your lead is something that a human can read aloud rather than choking on, helps you with why it matters. You paste some text in there and we'll maybe say, let's break this up as by the numbers. Or we could say this in an easier way. Or here's an SAT word that you could say in a clearer way. And a big one is the subject line. We'd like a subject line to recommend three words to five words. And the reason for that Willy, is that that's the real estate that you have in someone's iPhone inbox — that is your target audience. Right? You want them to see and to be arrested by what you have to say in your email. And after three to five words, it's all wasted. Those should also be sharp, powerful, strong words. One of the secrets in smart brevity is that the shortest words in the English language tend to be the strongest — rock, punch. Right. All very strong, sharp words. So, when I'm writing a headline or the subject line of an email. If a word has three syllables. I'll see if I can make it two syllables. If it's two syllables, I'll see if I can make it one syllable, because I know that that is going to be stronger. And so that strong subject line, because one of the magic discoveries we've made is that if you don't get the subject line right, all the other words are waste, right? Because I'll never see them. So, our tendency is to make the subject line an afterthought, so we say, give it real thought. Axios HQ helps you do that. And for anyone who wants to communicate, needs to align their teams, Axios HQ can help.
Willy, you've experienced this yourself that since the pandemic we all have to communicate in totally different ways. Any organization that's communicating the same way that it did before COVID is losing the battle. Because if you have one person working remotely, even part of the time, you have a huge gap in making sure that everybody's aligned, everybody's connected. And so, we practice what we preach at Axios. Every Sunday night, Jim VandeHei, our CEO, sends a newsletter five big things to all 550 people in our company. And what does it do? It helps everybody know what our big goal, our mission is, helps everybody know what each of our teams is up to, keeps everybody aligned. Roy Schwartz, co-author of Smart Brevity and the president of Axios, now the CEO of Axios HQ, does this with all of his direct reports. They all send him an update in Axios HQ using our format.
What that does, Willy, the magic of that is, is that when people send you a regular update on a weekly cadence, then when you have a one-on-one with them, when you have time with them, you're caught up and you can be talking about the future. You can talk about building, growing instead of what's in the rearview mirror. Because something we've learned from Axios and this is something that Jim VandeHei lives and I've learned from him, is that you can almost detect someone's success by how much time they spend thinking about the future as opposed to thinking about the past. And so having regular internal communication, which Axios HQ helps you do, helps you make sure that the time that you're spending, your human time, is about the future.
Willy Walker: So, a couple of in practice things to that and then I want to go to HQ for a second. So, I went to DC last week, had a ton of meetings with clients, met with partners, met with congressmen, senators. So, I got done with Washington (before reading your book) I wrote a lengthy email to everyone inside of Walker & Dunlop and up saying my trip to DC and I'm a pretty bullet form person and I try and stay really tight. Chris Ogden, now the late Chris Ogden, who died a couple of weeks ago, tragically in Hawaii in an accident. But the former Time magazine writer helped me tremendously when I was applying to business schools, I showed him my business school essays and Chris pulled out a red sharpie and just terrorized, terrorized my essay that I thought was such a great piece of work and I learned from Chris how to be concise, if you will. So, it was pretty concise, but I sent it out and then I read your book. So, I said, I want to find out how many people actually read it. So, we did a quick survey to Walker & Dunlop employees on Friday saying Willy's email that came out on Thursday: Did you never open it? Did you open it and skim it? Did you read half of it, or did you read the whole thing? And so far out of sending that out to 1,500 employees, we've gotten 720 responses. Of the 720, there’s 520 who presumably read the whole thing, which I will take great credit that a vast majority of them actually say they read the whole thing. I'm not sure whether I actually truly believe it, but the point is that then I sat there after reading your book and as you saw, because I sent it to you, I said, you know, I'm going to start Monday morning with a Walker Week and I'm going to say the four major things that we need to be focused on this week of things that came from last week, I sent it to you. As you can tell, it's choppy, its bullet pointed and it's right out there. And so I would put forth your book is a user's manual to communication and it's just got so many good things that are so practical for all of our communications, whether what we're doing back and forth of talking to each other, whether it's a PowerPoint presentation, a presentation at a conference, or the daily communication in internal or external written words.
Mike Allen: Yeah, it's so true. I would just flip or tweak that slightly, Willy. And I would say that it's a user's manual to being heard. And that's what you got with those four points in Walker's Week. People saw what you wanted them to remember. They're not going to remember this. Nobody is. But by boiling it down you gave those four points probably more thought than you gave your whole “My week in Washington,” and now you're seeing the power of that and the results you're going to get from that. People are going to be aligned. People are going to be inspired.
Willy Walker: So, I want to close off on Axios for a second and then I want to move to your take on the political world we live in, because while I've got you on, I can't pass that opportunity up, Mike. But before I move to that as a reference point, Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post a couple of years ago for $250 million. Cox Communications bought Axios for over 2X that price very recently. And so, I would first say it is incredible of old media into new media and what you and your partners have done as it relates to creating a new way to communicate with your audience and really flipping media and digital media on its head. And I think that that's just an incredible hat off to the three of you for what you have created.
My question to you, Mike, is this: How much of the purchase price is for Axios as it relates to content versus Axios HQ as it relates to technology?
Mike Allen: Yes. So, Cox Enterprises, which is a fantastic partner, who has journalism in their bones and blood. So, Cox Enterprises goes back to their founder, who was in Dayton, Ohio at the end of the 1800s, bought what was then the Dayton Evening News, became the Dayton Daily News. They went on to build this incredible media footprint across the country. When I was coming up in newspapers, we took Cox News Service right into our terminals. Cox Enterprises now moved into other areas: cable, automotive, and moved away from legacy media. But now we're excited to be partnering with them on the media of the future. And they looked at us and they said, oh, like this is a company that's built for the future. They especially like Axios local. We now have Axios reporters on the ground in 24 cities across the country, seem to be 30 cities, all doing a morning newsletter for those cities, whether it's Des Moines, San Francisco, Tampa or Seattle in smart brevity, covering their news in a crisp, efficient and trustworthy way. So Axios and Cox Enterprises are very aligned in our long-term thinking in the importance of journalism, and so they're investing more in the future of Axios. They're the dream partner. And they said, we like what you're doing. We want you to do more of it, do it faster. And we said we’re in.
One of the things you said at the top, that the value that's been created is very much I'm grateful for my partners Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz. The value that's been created, is the hundreds of Axioans, as we call our colleagues over those six years, who helped to refine smart brevity. We make the point here that smart brevity started as an idea, and it's been refined and is now available to you between hardcovers because of the hard work of our colleagues. So, we've had a great team of innovators, pioneers. When we started, like deciding to go to work for Axios, there were a lot easier places to go. You're entrepreneurial and you are a pioneer yourself and you know that a lot of times people can make an easier decision. They could choose a lot of easier places to work. People did something hard. They came to Axios. We're grateful for it and now we can all benefit from it in the book Smart Brevity.
Willy Walker: So, two quick things. One, all Axios employees’ own stock. So, Mike and his partner in selling the firm, all of the Axioans benefited from that. The second thing is that all of the profits from Smart Brevity go to a foundation that Axios has set up to try and recruit and maintain more diverse writers into the media world, into the writing world, into the journalism profession, which is absolutely fantastic.
Mike Allen: And if I could just jump in. Willy, I really appreciate your mentioning that, because our proceeds go to the Axios fellowship program, which, as you said, brings journalists from underrepresented backgrounds early in their career, lets us pay them to join our newsroom. One of the key points in Axios in Smart Brevity, the book, which I think will really resonate with your viewers of this Webcast, is we have a whole section in there on inclusive communications. We say there that if you're not communicating inclusively and that can take in all the types of diversity that make a company stronger, you're not communicating effectively.
And I have a tiny teaser for you, a fascinating chapter in this book, which was written by Roy Schwartz, one of the three founders of Axios and one of the three authors of Smart Brevity. He writes about his dyslexia and how, when he was coming up in school after he got his MBA, when he became a consultant, he was at Gallup that his dyslexia forced him to communicate in an efficient way, and he had to boil things down. And that's part of what became the magic of Smart Brevity that now is replicable in our tips and tricks for your listeners and viewers. We even have a tear out cheat sheet to help you and your team communicate with more power.
Willy Walker: Finally on the quick take on politics, I could talk to you for another hour about this one. But I want to do two things. One, when you were on Squawk last week, one of the things I thought was so fascinating was you practicing what you preach, and that was you were asked to open it, what President Biden was going to go to the U.N. and talk about. And rather than sitting there and pontificating on all the things that you know that he could go talk about, what you said was “What I would watch for is this.” And when I went back and really listened to it, Mike, I was fascinated by how you saying that tells people where you are going, what to look for? Not “here I'm going to relay to you all the things I know because I talked to everyone in the White House about what he's going to talk about.” But you were like, what I would watch for is this. And I thought it was so capturing. And it's exactly how you write Axios AM that you sort of like, these are the things you need to know about today. When you were talking verbally, you went to “This is what I would watch for,” and it immediately captured everyone's attention. So that was point one. You go ahead because I see you want to say something on that.
Mike Allen: No, I was just going to say real quick, you're amazing. Thank you for picking up on that. That's one of the things that you'll learn in Smart Brevity is we talk about the importance of the tease. grab me. The first words of the book because we want to practice what we preach, grab me. And so, things I like to say are “What our reporting shows is. I've got a scoop for you. Here's something that's new. Here's something that'll be making news tomorrow.” And all those are things that your listeners, viewers can apply no matter what kind of update they're doing. Grab me. I've got the goods. This could be worthy of your time.
Willy Walker: Okay, so then what you said about Trump, which I thought was fascinating was “the more his legal and financial woes increase, the quicker he is to declare a candidacy.”
Mike Allen: What I would watch for is Donald Trump to declare for the presidency shortly after midterms. And Willy, it's Donald Trump. So, who knows? He could change his mind. Well, we can tell you what our reporting shows is that people around him expect him to announce for the presidency shortly after the midterms, in part as these investigations heat up, as you said, because he sees it as protection, that he can then say that the investigations are political. But here's something new. Here's a scoop for you, Willy is that one of the reasons that I would watch for him to do it fairly soon after the midterms is he doesn't want other people to get a head start. He knows that after Ron DeSantis, it looks like he can be easily reelected governor of Florida, that after he's reelected, he could announce. There's other Republicans out there who are going to want to go. One of the reasons that Donald Trump, I think, will do it sooner rather than later, or at least the people around him expect them to do it sooner rather than later, is so that no one else gets a head of steam, as my grandma would say that he will be out front in that race.
Willy Walker: And then on the midterms, you've got it was going to be a red wave. It's now going to be a red bleed if you're thinking that or a red pickup, you've got to however you want to play that. But they'll pick up 20 seats in the House. And that, the Democrats are looking right now from the numbers that you said last week, right now I think it's 62, 39, which I don't know. The other one went.
Mike Allen: The way to think about it Willy, is two things. First, I used to say there were none. Now I found one. But very few Democrats will argue that they will hold the House. Republicans only need to flip five seats and they could win as many. As you mentioned, the range is sort of 15 to 25 of what they could win. So, barring some surprise at this moment, it looks like we're going to have Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California. What I'd said before was that there was a time that it looked like a red tsunami. The people were talking about them winning 40 seats. Now it looks more like the red wave again and better than the red ripple that we had a few weeks ago.
And then on the Senate side, people now will tell you that it's a tossup, that the two sides have gone back and forth. But you can take a seat by seat, race by race, state by state, and very easily make the case for either one. But what that does is the bottom line, Willy, is that with the likelihood that you're going to have a Republican House, the likelihood is you're going to have a divided government. You're going to have a Democratic president, at least one chamber of Congress Republican. And so that's going to mean political warfare and not a lot of accomplishment in the next couple of years.
Willy Walker: And your September 2006 Barack Obama pick, if that makes sense. So, your dark horse for 2024 that no one's thinking about right now. September 26, nobody would have put money on Barack Obama as senator. Freshman Senator Barack Obama, who is the person who might come in there and all of a sudden change the outlook on 2024?
Mike Allen: Yeah, I'm wiser than I was in 2006 and so I'm less likely to make a pick like that. But here's one takeaway for you that if for whatever reason the nominee is not President Biden, I would look outside Washington, there's a lot of Democratic governors. Look at Governor Whitmer in Michigan. Governor Newsom in my home state of California.
Willy Walker: Governor Polis in my home state.
Mike Allen: And add in Pennsylvania. Add in North Carolina. So, the bottom line of that between those lines is that it's going to be a free for all, that no one's going to defer, that it's going to be for whatever reason, it's not President Biden. It'll be a real fight. On the Republican side, at the moment, President Trump holds a lot of cards with the Republican base. The party is more Trumpy than it was the day he lost because of all the work that he's done in primaries to get his nominees in. And here's something to watch, at least at first, other Republicans are not going to want to cross him, are not going to want to repudiate Trumpian ideas, because they're not going to want to be attacked by him. As a result, the Republican Party is going to sound very Trumpy for at least a while.
Willy Walker: Mike Allen. What a total joy. The book, Smart Brevity is fantastic. You are incredible. Keep up doing all that you're doing. I look forward to seeing you next time I'm in DC and I'm just super appreciative that you are spending an hour with me.
Mike Allen: Well, Willy Walker, thank you for that. And if you're listeners and viewers of this webcast, go on smartbrevity.com, they'll see other data, other tips there. Also, it is very easy to get Smart Brevity from independent booksellers, the big guys. There's lots of choices.
And Willy, thank you for inspiring my coauthors, Roy Schwartz, Jim VandeHei, and me. Your attention to fitness, family, and your success in business are all eye opening, all worthy of emulation. So, thank you for this conversation.
Willy Walker: Thanks, Mike. Everyone, thanks for joining us this week. We'll see you again next week. My guest next week is Molly Bloom of Molly's Game, who ran the biggest private poker game in America until the Feds shut her down. And there is a book that she wrote, as well as a movie done by Aaron Sorkin on Molly's Game. And I can't wait to have Molly on the webcast next week.
So, Mike, thanks again. Everyone, I hope you have a great day.
Mike Allen: Thank you, Willy! smartbrevity.com.