Brevity vs. Detail: The Sweet Spot of Understanding

Last updated on 15 January 2022

Trying to explain a concept or sell an idea, we always have to make a decision on how much information we need to present to make our point. This applies to writing, sales, telling jokes, and telling stories.

The Sweet Spot

Somewhere between absolute brevity and absolute detail lies clarity, the sweet spot of understanding. Clarity happens when we give people enough information for to reach crucial conclusions themselves. Tell them just enough to stimulate an “Aha!” effect, like the punchline of a joke (“haha” effect?).

Clarity, the sweet spot of understanding

Allowing people leeway to reach their own conclusions works on principles of Constructivist learning: you allow them to connect your story to their own experiences.

Update (January, 2015)

This model used to show brevity on the left, clarity on the right, and the sweet spot in the middle. But trainer and coach Jade Handy pointed out that clarity is itself the sweet spot of understanding. He’s absolutely right, so I updated this post and model accordingly. Thanks, Jade!

Why This is Important

When making a point, one of three things can happen, with the corresponding consequences:

1. Not enough information is given (too brief)

  • The audience just doesn’t get it
  • They are not convinced
  • The humor is lost

2. Too much information is given (too detailed)

  • The audience is bored
  • Their attention is elsewhere
  • They get the joke, but it’s just not funny

3. Sweet Spot (just enough to be clear)

  • The audience is inspired
  • They are engaged and listening
  • “Haha!” effect

Different Strokes for Different Folks

As with anything, there is no universal Sweet Spot; it always depends on (1) who needs to understand and (2) why they need to understand it.

Different people have different information needs

People who already know stories like yours won’t need a lot of information to understand what you are trying to tell them. My best friends, since we know each other so well, often communicate with one word or gesture something that would take someone else a half-hour explanation to understand. This moves the Sweet Spot to the left; less information necessary.

On the other hand, some people need to know more to understand your message. Individual concepts and foundations need to be explained, moving the Sweet Spot to the right for more detail.

In Real Life

As a UX practitioner, I come across both of these scenarios. I need to give only a minimal amount of information when presenting design concepts to other UX people, because they already have the relevant knowledge. Non-UX stakeholders, on the other hand, need much more background and rationale, because their expertise lies in other fields.

Here’s an example of someone who does it right consistently. This is a TED talk by J.J. Abrams on his vision of mystery and storytelling. I hope it inspires you as much as it did me!

Mystery Box