The Power of One

“A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about writing came to me after about a year of writing ETR. Like many writers, I often tried to put too much into each essay. I began with a main idea, but when that idea suggested a second one and then a third, I put those in too. That was a mistake. It made the essay too long and cumbersome. And instead of gaining power, the message weakened.

My strongest pieces – the ones that got the most positive responses from ETR readers – were those that focused on one good and helpful thought. By restricting myself that way, I managed to say more in fewer words.

Readers, I realized, didn’t want to hear everything I had to say about a particular topic every time I fired up my computer. They were looking for a single, useful idea that could make them more successful.

So I came up with a rule that I asked everyone writing for ETR to abide by. I called it “The Rule of One” – and it was very simple: Write about only one thing at a time. Because one good idea, clearly and convincingly presented, is better than a dozen so-so ideas strung together.

I truly believed that following this rule would always produce better writing… and it did.

Several years later, I introduced the Rule of One concept to Agora writers and copywriters at a creative retreat. Many of them have used it since then, to great effect. Then, last year, I divulged it to more than 600 people at the AWAI/ETR yearly Bootcamp in Delray Beach, FL. I’m sure that many of them, too, have used it to improve their writing.

This rule is not ironclad at ETR. That’s because some of our writers just don’t buy it and others can’t always reduce their pieces to a single idea. I occasionally violate it myself. (If I have six good reasons for this or 12 techniques for that, I sometimes can’t stop myself from including them all. The results are always disappointing.) But almost all of ETR’s best essays have followed this rule. If you are interested in looking at some of them, here are six:

* Do You Own Your Business or Does It Own You?

The idea: Entrepreneurs who want to create a valuable business they can retire from some day must organize it so that it doesn’t require their constant presence to be profitable.

* How to Avoid the Conceit of Outside Knowledge

The idea: Just because you have been a longtime customer of a restaurant or another type of business doesn’t mean you are capable of running a similar one. There are many hidden “secrets” to every type of business – not visible to outsiders – that are critical to success.

* Don’t Let Perfect Ruin Good

The idea: Don’t wait for everything to be perfect before launching a new product or business. Put serious effort into getting it right, test it in the real world, and then you’ll know what improvements you need to make.

* The Best Way to Surpass Your Peers and Rise to the Top of Any Business

The idea: Working harder than your co-workers and competitors will guarantee your success.

* A Business Question You Must Be Able to Answer

The idea: Before you can sell a product, you need to find out if people will buy it.

* How to Become What You Want to Be

The idea: You can’t actually BE a writer unless you write – just as you can’t be a pilot if you don’t fly planes, a philanthropist if you don’t give away money, an entrepreneur if you don’t start a business… and so on.

Recently I have been thinking (and writing) about how best-selling books are crafted. Many of them seem to follow the Rule of One. Consider these classic business best-sellers:

* What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles

The idea: Finding a life-changing new job that you love is the key to happiness.

* The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The idea: There is a pattern to commercial and cultural trends. If you understand the pattern, you can use the knowledge to benefit yourself and others.

* Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins

The idea: The purpose of advertising is to sell, not entertain or win creative awards.

* The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

The idea: Extremely low storage and delivery costs for digital information products have made marketing niche products extremely profitable.

* Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton

The idea: The best way to motivate employees (and improve your business) is to focus on their strengths rather than correct their weaknesses.

* Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson

The idea: Change is inevitable. So you must be prepared to change or you’ll be left behind.

And here’s a very recent example: Suzy Welch, a former editor of the Harvard Business Review (and the wife of Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric) was given a million-dollar contract by Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) to publish 10-10-10 , a book based on a variation of a single good idea that’s been around for years: Before you make a decision, consider the impact it will have on you in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years.

We have taught ETR readers to think that way many times since we began publishing in 2000. But we never thought of turning the idea into a book. Shame on us.

If you are planning to write a book, you probably have lots of ideas that you want to include. Figure out which one is the strongest, and focus on it. That’s what I did with Ready, Fire, Aim. Though this book contains just about everything I know about starting and growing entrepreneurial businesses, the title zeros in on the one idea I thought was the strongest and most useful. And this may be the reason it got so many positive reviews. Most of the industry people we showed it to – professional businesspeople and writers – said it was the best book I’ve ever written. My other books have plenty of good ideas in them. But they were designed to be comprehensive and were titled that way. This one took better advantage of the Rule of One.

The best thing about the Rule of One is that it’s not just for writing books and articles. You can also apply it to your business goals.

Before you go into a meeting, for example, think about the one thing you’d like to accomplish. Make that one thing your priority, and hammer away at it. You’ll be amazed at how often you will end up leaving the meeting with that goal accomplished.

Use the Rule of One at business lunches, too, and even parties. Challenge yourself: “Who is the best person I can network with here?” And “What is the one best thing I can say to that person to capture his interest?”

Spend some time today looking at work you’ve done – ads you’ve written, products you’ve created, goals you’ve set. How could you make them stronger by applying the Rule of One?

editor’s note.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]