Communicate Better with Bob Mueller

Editor’s note: this is an essay I submitted to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in 2019. They chose not to publish it, the bastards. So I’m archiving it here instead.

Hi, and welcome to another episode of Communicate Better, the podcast where we teach you how to be a more effective speaker, writer and presenter. I’m your host, former FBI Director and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Today we’re going to be talking about what may be the hardest problem in communications: how to make sure people get the point you want them to get. You can do the most thorough research and craft the most beautiful turns of phrase, but if your audience doesn’t come away with a clear understanding of your message, all that work has been wasted. And in today’s distraction-filled world, getting and holding on to enough of that attention to make sure you come through loud and clear is more difficult than ever.

So what’s the effective communicator to do? Based on my own hard-won experience over decades of public service, I can say with confidence that there’s one method that absolutely never fails: deliver your message as a dense, 448-page written report.

You heard me correctly – if you want to grab America’s attention, there is no better way to do that than by dropping a publication the size of a Russian novel into its lap.

Why is the door-stopping document such a consistent, time-tested winner?

First, you don’t need me to tell you that Americans love reading. When it comes to words on pages, they can’t get enough. That’s why newspapers and publishers and bookstores and libraries are all thriving, while companies like Netflix, Hulu and Twitch are struggling just to survive. It’s why so many more people read superhero comic books than watch superhero movies. Producers of video just can’t convince America to tear itself away from its dog-eared copies of Ulysses long enough to see what’s happening on their dusty, neglected electronic screens.

Second, it’s a well-known axiom among writers that longer equals better. Nobody wants to waste their time on a 50-page document if a 100-page one is available. Why take the chance of losing your reader to someone else who had the good sense to give them more words for the same price? In the famous words of William Shakespeare, “brevity is the soul of not getting your message across because you omitted some marginal nuance that would only have distracted from the main point to begin with.”

(A fun side note: the Department of Justice School of Creative Writing has these words inscribed above its entrance door. It’s a big door.)

Finally, shortening your document means short-changing your message. In a misguided quest to omit needless words, too many writers end up paring away essential context the reader requires to truly get the point.

To see what I mean here, let’s take a look at a couple of opening sentences. The first sentence of your document is crucial. Done right, it grabs the reader’s attention and sets the tone for everything that follows.

Here is an example of a bad first sentence, taken from the work of an obscure and undistinguished novelist:

Call me Ishmael.

The astute reader will see the problems with this opening right away. What is the institutional context of the conversation I am having with this fictional character? Under what legal authority am I permitted to call him “Ishmael”? By neglecting specificity, this writer has thrown away the chance to give the reader a full and complete picture of the exchange.

For the purpose of comparison, I humbly offer this example from my own work:

This report is submitted to the Attorney General pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 600.8(c), which states that, “[a]t the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he… shall provide the Attorney General a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions [the Special Counsel] reached.

See? Much better! The context has been established; the legal scaffolding for everything that will follow has been erected. It is the rare reader indeed who will come away from such an opening without wanting desperately to read more.

Which is not to say there is still not room for improvement! Those ellipses represent a missed opportunity to give the reader even more words to savor, for instance. I fought with my editor on this point, but you can’t win them all.

So now you understand the basics of communicating the Mueller way. Never say out loud what you can say in writing. Never use one word when a dozen will do. And always remember that, if you want to change the mind of the American reader, the best prose is prose that reads like an excerpt from a mid-tier law review.

Armed with these principles, you have everything you need to set the direction of the nation’s political discourse. And if for some reason they don’t work, you can always just hold a press conference to tell everyone to read what you wrote again.