George Kingsley Zipf was an American linguist who created an empirical formula related to the frequency of utterances. In its simplest application, the law illustrates Zip’s belief that neither readers nor listeners want to expend more energy than necessary to reach an understanding of verbal import.
In this wired world of ours, the average person is exposed to 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information each day. Clearly, the need to find ways to streamline output and condense input is imperative. This is where Zipf comes in.
Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Abraham Lincoln, in defining democracy, used 20 words, all but four of them monosyllables: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”
The Gettysburg Address, one of the most revered speeches in all of American history, has a mere 271 words—sufficient for healing a war-ravaged nation and espousing the values of equality. The Lord’s Prayer has 66 words. Contrast this with H.R. 3962, better known as the Affordable Health Care for America Act, which has 1,990 pages, not words. To be sure, legal matters required detailed explanations. But pity the poor reader who has to read all of that. Healthcare might not be affordable, but not neces- sarily easy to comprehend.
Nikki Haley’s response to a charge of miscommunication on her part: “I don’t get confused.”
Facebook’s COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg takes a spiral-bound notebook with her into meetings. When every item on the meeting list page has been handled, she will conclude the meeting—even if only 10 minutes have elapsed in a meeting scheduled for an hour.
Warm up by applying Zipf to sports teams:
To develop the Zipfean approach to verbal economy, start with the names of popular teams. Ask yourself to imagine how different discussions would be if the non-Zipf names were used. (The “translations” of the basketball teams below appear parenthetically.) Some of these phrases are more challenging than others. For them, have dictionaries ready or have a verbal scavenger hunt involving with friends or co-workers.
• Metallic missiles from a paternal patriot (Washington Bullets)
Dollars from the malt metropolis (Milwaukee Bucks)
Pathway pyromaniacs from a left-sided land (Portland Trailblazers)
Hoosier equine leaders (Indiana Pacers)
Aqueous-mass types from a celestial city (Los Angeles Lakers)
New, soft-fabric, marine containers (New Jersey Nets)
Avian resurrection and heliacal essences (Phoenix Suns)
Scrapes and the focus of a Sinatran ode (NY Knicks)
Bovine creatures from the Hawk’s domicile (Chicago Bulls)
Battlers from an auriferous state (Golden State Warriors)
Equine goads for a canonized Anthony (San Antonio Spurs)
Nonconformists from a cowboy’s city (Dallas Mavericks)
• Barber’s tool from a city of no deviltry (LA Clippers)
• Mineral chunks from an altitudinous location (Denver Nuggets)
• Angry apiarians from a sweet but hushed appellation (Charlotte Hornets)
• Birds of prey in a peachy-state city (Atlanta hawks)
• Druids from a leguminous land (Boston Celtics)
• Gold Rush town and royalty figures (Sacramento Kings)
• A number of trombones from a metropolis of fraternal amour (Philadelphia 76ers)
• Motor City cylinders (Detroit Pistons)
• Grover’s courtly horsemen (Cleveland Cavaliers
• Sound-breaking players from a place of precipitation (Seattle Supersonics)
• Marsalis music from a state known for its park city (Utah Jazz)
• Torridness from city known for its southerly beaches (Miami Heat)
• A beverage belonging to Minnie plus sylvan, lupine creatures (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Fireworks from an oily city (Houston Rockets)
Sunshine state city using legerdemain (Orlando Magic)
Prehistoric figures from “Hollywood North” (Toronto Raptors)
Ursi horribili from the Gateway to the Pacific (Vancouver Grizzlies)
Now move on to popular sayings:
1) A singular graphic representation is more meritorious than philological expressions comprised of the figure that occupies the position four to the left of the decimal point in the Arabic numeric notation. (A picture is worth a thousand words.)
2) It is empirical activities of an amorous nature that bear the responsibility for the causality or consequence of the mundane entity progressing along an axial trajec- tory. (Love makes the world go round.)
3) The very deprivation of a physical entity or the temporal and spatial separation form that entity is often the cause of amplification of an amorous affinity. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder.)
4) It is neither ameliorative of one’s current reality nor advantageous for reification of the future to garner the totality of one’s gallinaceous assemblage into a singular receptacle fabricated from the smaller extrusions of a large perennial plant that pos- sesses a primary stem from which multiple outgrowths occur. (Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.)
Now apply Zipf to your business communications:
You can work alone to add concision to your communications or have a team competition to emphasize the paring-down possibilities of being Zipfean as a communicator. Give each person a sheet with one passage on it. Say, “Start.” As soon as one team member has correctly truncated the passage in writing, give her the second sheet. The first person to correctly “Zipfify” all the sentences wins a prize of some sort. Share the following, noting that the same idea can be expressed by the number in parentheses—the number indicates how many words are actually needed to convey the same thought that appears in the longer sentence.
Example: A vote was taken by the committee. (3)
The original sentence has seven words. The core message can be expressed in
three words: The committee voted.
Make up examples of your own or use the following. Variations are acceptable, but the word count should approximate the number listed in parentheses. If your team has more than three people, ask a colleague to help with the process so no person is kept unfairly waiting while you read the answer of the person ahead of him. Also, encourage team members to work quietly so others cannot hear their answers.
1) There is a great deal of hatred on the part of the fans of the Lakers of Los Angeles towards the fans of the Pistons of Detroit at the present time. (From 31 to 5, using only necessary words to convey the same idea: Laker fans hate Piston fans.)
2) Reliability of a system is determined by the design of that system. (From 12 to 4: Design determines system reliability.)
3) It is the opinion of my manager that the culture of an organization is reflected in the morale of the employees who work in that organization. (From 26 to 8: My man- ager believes employee morale reflects organizational culture.)
4) A wide array of potential errors might be attributed to the fact that if a person is a poor listener, he or she is less likely to pay attention to details than will someone who is a good listener. (From 35 to 5: Good listening helps avoid errors.)
5) Productivity is often the result of relationships between co-workers that have been nurtured in order for cooperation to be fostered. (From 20 to 3: Cooperation
Let George save you and others valuable time:
Zipf shows importance of getting a message across in the simplest, clearest way possible. To illustrate:
It is the purpose of this memo to advise you that….
Eleven wasted words. Of course the memo has a purpose. You wouldn’t be writing it other- wise. “To advise you that….” That’s what memos do—they give advice or information. Get to the point and save both reader and writer a lot of time.
In the business world, succinct messages are appreciated. Experts such as Milo Frank believe job applicants have 30 seconds to make a positive impression during the interview process. In The 30-Second Sell, he posits that candidates who can make their points decisively have a better chance of getting that job. George Zipf’s Law can make business communications easier and more productive for all of us.