Co-founder of Axios advises journalists to write audience-first

By Edward Pimenta

Editora Globo

São Paulo, Brazil


Jim VandeHei quotes a study that shows our brain takes 17 milliseconds to decide whether we like something we’ve just clicked on. If we don’t like it, we close it.

“We still cling to the theory that long text equals depth and relevance,” said VandeHei, co-founder, CEO, and chairman of Axios. “The result of this behaviour is a waste of billions of words: Only one-third of work e-mails that require attention are read, and most words in news and books are ignored.”

VandeHei previously led Politico, a platform he helped create that revolutionised political journalism in Washington, D.C., and New York. He has also worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, covering the White House and the U.S. Congress.

Together with journalists Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, he authored the book Smart Brevity, a kind of manual on how to express oneself clearly and effectively in a world where everyone is more scattered, impatient, and saturated with information.

In this interview with VandeHei, he offers additional insight into his area of expertise.

Q: Can you explain the concept of “smart brevity” and how it differs from traditional approaches to communication?

A: In traditional communications, people’s first instinct is to use too many words that drown what they’re trying to say. Smart brevity prioritises essential news and information, explains its impact, and delivers both in a concise and visual format.

Q: What research and/or studies were the basis for developing the concept of smart brevity?

A: As a media company, we have data on how much time someone spends reading an article. We also studied social media, traditional media companies, and academic writing. The average person spends 26 seconds on a story or update, which isn’t much beyond the first paragraph of an article. That’s why we decided we weren’t going to waste people’s time with long prose, and smart brevity was born.

Q: How can someone be concise without being superficial?

A: Being concise is what stops us from being superficial. Unnecessary words distract from what we’re actually trying to say. Smart brevity delivers information in a way that is direct, helpful, and time-saving.

Q: Why do journalists enjoy writing at length?

A: Journalists have been taught to value word counts and bylines. But this notion is dated thanks to technology. Smarter writing will be even more essential to journalists as new tech like Artificial Intelligence emerges. Those who survive will adapt quickly to fast-changing audience needs and habits.

Q: Is the era of long-form in-depth journalism over?

A: Long-form journalism will always be important. Getting daily, essential news in smart brevity gives readers the time and energy to read long-form pieces.

Q: Your book discusses the balance between concise communication and the need for comprehensive understanding. Could you provide examples of situations where smart brevity has led to better outcomes or improved decision-making?

A: After we launched Axios, executives and team leaders from the biggest companies begged us to teach them how to write in smart brevity. Their employees weren’t reading and digesting important employee communications. That inspired us to create Axios HQ, a communications software that helps organisations plan, write, and send essential communications that boost trust, transparency, and alignment. More than 500 companies use Axios HQ to do just that. More case studies can be found here.

Q: Technology has significantly altered how we communicate, often favouring brevity due to character limits and attention spans. How can individuals strike a balance between embracing these technological shifts while still ensuring meaningful and impactful communication?

A: The most important thing to think about is your audience. Communication is all about who receives the information, not who is writing. Tailour your message based on who is receiving it, and deliver it in a way that resonates with them.

Q: Would you list five tips that can help people communicate better?


  1. Before you begin, think of your audience first.
  2. Grab your readers’ attention by starting with your most important point.
  3. Keep it simple. Use direct words and eliminate fluff.
  4. Write as if you’re talking to someone. Be human.
  5. Just stop. You don’t need to keep going once the important information is delivered.

About Edward Pimenta

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