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I was going to write a shorter letter but I didn’t have time

I was going to write a shorter letter but I didn’t have time

Debate continues to this day as to who said it first, however variations on this theme have been attributed to physicists and physicians, philosophers and poets, priests and presidents alike.  Luminaries no less than Blaise Pascal, Cicero, John Locke, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and Woodrow Wilson have all been quoted saying something like it.

As far back as Roman times the quote was assigned to the Roman orator Cicero “Cicero excuses himself for having written a long letter, by saying he had not time to make it shorter.”

In 1657 Pascal published a collection of open letters entitled Lettres Provinciales and within them notes “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

A century later in 1750 Benjamin Franklin composed a letter describing his groundbreaking experiments involving electricity and sent it to a member of the Royal Society in London “I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.”

According to an anecdote published in 1918 Woodrow Wilson was asked about the amount of time he spent preparing speeches, and his response was illuminating.  “That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten–minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half–hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

Regular readers will immediately identify the relevance of the sentiment to the world of web, where there is an inverse relationship between the heavy lifting done by the marketer and the lighter lifting done by the user.  The organisation deals with the complexity in order to offer the user simplicity.

  • I was going to develop a better website but I didn’t stop to think about the user’s needs or goals
  • I was going to write better content but I just cut and pasted from another source
  • I was going to make life easier for the user but I didn’t bother to commission any usability tests or other research

The web’s great dichotomy is that the publisher and the reader are doing opposite things.  The publisher is producing content.  The reader is percolating content – and so the wrong content or too much content hinders, doesn’t help, the reader achieve what they wish to do.  Bluntly put, content gets in their way.

The Internet is legion with examples of organisations who have removed content and seen an uplift in customer satisfaction, task completion, on–boarding, online sales and conversion.

Fathom helped a leading Irish online accounting company increase qualified in–bounds leads by 200% and free–trial sign–up by 85% by reducing the number of sign–up steps and the amount of content.

Over the years we have helped leading Irish telcos reduce call–centre queries significantly, saving them millions of Euro, by putting the right content at the right place in the customer journey, only displayed it when it is needed.

This is a trend which is mirrored the world over.

  • Telenor of Norway doubled conversion and decreased support calls by 35% by removing 90% of their website
  • No–one even noticed when The US Department of Health & Human Services deleted 150,000 of their 200,000 pages
  • Columbia College Chicago raised student enquiries by 80% by deleting 97% of their pages

Across the Internet, when web publishers take the time to write the shorter letter, users respond by reading it and acting on it.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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