Swedish Death Cleaning will make you a better communicator


Several years ago, people were raving about the KonMari method of decluttering and organizing. Attempting to jump on the bandwagon, I bought The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and started reading.

A few pages in, I bailed.

Marie Kondo wanted me to touch every possession and ask, “Does it spark joy?” If not, that item must go.

For me, this was not a useful metric.

Most days, I’m a positive person. I refuse to dwell in regret, so I feel good about most of my choices and purchases. I like what’s around me. Hell, I can look with joy upon a dishtowel! Just look at that lime green stripe. What a great color! And that wine stain? That was a helluva good cabernet!

Using Kondo’s “spark joy” criteria, I might have parted with a small handful of things. The cats’ litter boxes, for example. Imagine how that would have gone.

KonMari was not the life-changing magic I needed to cut the clutter from my home. I turned my back on home editing and kept accumulating stuff.

Flash forward. My husband and I are preparing to move this year. After 23 years under one roof I have to edit our home—partly so the place shows well to potential buyers, and partly so I don’t move the whole mess to a new address.

Bracing for this project, I downloaded The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning on January 1. New year, new intentions, right? I hadn’t heard many people rave about Margareta Magnusson’s approach, but I was intrigued by her quirky title. As a person who’s a little offbeat (and a little Swedish), I wondered if I’d at least find some kinship with the author.

I did! I finished the book in one sitting.

Magnusson set an entirely different standard for what to keep. The point of Swedish Death Cleaning is to reduce the burden on your survivors. It’s not about you, but them.

Someday, when someone has to clean up after me, how will they feel about the things I leave behind? What will they do with my stuff?

Aha! It’s not about my emotions, but theirs! By anticipating the feelings of others, I can help them take easier action when I’m gone.

I suspect Swedish Death Cleaning “clicked” for me because it’s the same mindset Jill and I suggest for business communication.

When you’re editing a business message, every decision hinges on one factor: Who is your audience?

You can’t KonMari a business message. You have to Death Clean it.

Both Kondo and Magnusson acknowledge that emotion inspires action. Humans—even the most analytical ones—feel things. And feeling leads to doing.

In business communication, a lot of people get involved in a whole chain of feeling and doing what it takes to generate an ultimate result. Imagine the path to a sale, for example. Just think how many people contribute to a promotion or proposal: discussing, drafting, revising, reviewing, revising again, designing, proofreading, approving, delivering, and receiving.

Then, we hope, the customer makes a purchase.

That final action—and that end-of-the-chain actor—is what matters most.

That’s why smart communicators obsess about their target audience. Especially when editing.

Editing is a chance to Death Clean your message.

You examine every word and ask not how it appeals to you (or even your reviewers), but how it will land with your ultimate audience.

Adopting this perspective, you’ll make wise decisions like these: 

  • Translate insider-speak to the language of the customer.
  • Ditch phrases you included simply because your boss likes them.
  • Question buzzwords that sound smart but don’t say much.

The standard for evaluation has to be the target audience. How will they feel? And what will they do?


Inspired by the philosophy of Swedish Death Cleaning, I had no trouble parting with that dishtowel. In fact, I’ve spent the month filling bags and boxes of stuff to toss, donate, or sell. I’m not done, but I’m on a roll. Our house is lighter and easier to navigate. Where once there was clutter, now we have open space. And with every edit, I’m making things better for those who matter most. And that, my friends, sparks joy.

What could a little Death Cleaning do for your business messages?

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