When I was in high school, my senior English teacher was a granite pylon of a woman. Bat Masterson.
I don’t remember her real first name. But in a brilliant end-run around potentially (usually) cruel high schoolers, she started calling herself “Bat” long before any in my class knew her. She had stuffed animal and cartoon bats all over her classroom. Every Halloween she dressed in this black and purple bat headdress of sorts, which, perched atop the curly grey hair at the crown of her six-foot frame, seemed to be the one time of year she came across as anything other than intimidating.
Maybe that’s why she considered “Bat” as acceptable as “Mrs. Masterson” to get her attention — to remind us, in the moments when we were cowering before her or an assignment, that there was a human under all of that (and a lovely one, too… most of the time).
The assignments that cowered me most of all were devilish exercises she assigned called “précis.” The task was to take a piece of text and retell it in our own words… but with half as many words… and with all the major points still present.
Then she’d make us take that half-as-long version and make it half as long again… still keeping the main points.
Think about what that means you have to do:
- Know what the main points actually are
- Understand them well enough to restate them
- Figure out how to restate them in fewer words…
- …while keeping the flow and interest of the original
And when I look at that list, I realize I never really stopped doing this exercise. My whole career, in fact, from brand and message strategy to Weight Watchers leader to crafting TEDx talks, has been series of “make it half as long but just as good (or better!).”
I think we all have to do this all the time, and yet not all of us were lucky enough (she says, begrudgingly) to have Bat in our corner. If you’re in marketing, it’s all about how to make the message relevant, powerful, accurate… and short. Heck, if you’re in business that’s the task daily — in meetings, in front of boards, at networking events, everywhere. If you’re a speaker or aspire to be, you already know you’re asked to make shorter and shorter talks all the time (thanks to TED).
That, to me, is why having something like the Red Thread Method in your back pocket is so important. It gives you a way — even in the moment — to figure out what your main points are, so you can understand them enough to restate them for any audience, in as many or as few words as you have time for… while keeping what you say as interesting and useful as a story:
Goal, Problem, Idea, Change, Action. The universal précis.
So, yeah, thanks Bat. Turns out I’m still using (and teaching) the lessons I learned lo these many years ago.