Brevity: The Soul Of Wit

Brevity - new captionFar be it from me to publish cartoons that might be construed as a criticism of the Almighty – so let’s focus instead on the notion that many businesspeople seem to think a long sentence, preferably chock full of multi-syllabic abstract nouns, packs more punch than a short one.

It doesn’t.

The tendency to ramble on often manifests itself in words like ‘and’ or ‘but’.

What you’ve just said probably covers the point very well – BUT before you know it, one of those sneaky linking words is out of your mouth AND you then feel you have no choice BUT to add a subordinate clause you don’t really need…

…which now makes you feel obliged to find a different way of saying what you just said all over again, when it was pretty much clear in the first place…

…and/or to qualify or contextualise everything you said to begin with, when all you’re really doing by now is confusing the issue.

Less is so often more – or to coin a cliché: Keep It Simple, Stupid (the KISS principle).

CUT  the ‘but’, or the ‘and’, or whatever word is leading you endlessly rambling on into yet another subordinate clause… and STOP.

Then begin afresh.

If you speak in short, simple sentences, you stand a much better chance of getting the message across.

That doesn’t mean you can’t repeat things.

Repeating things can be helpful, because – done well – repeating things becomes like a refrain in a song.

‘Yes we can,’ said Obama. Often.

‘We shall overcome,’ said Martin Luther King. More than once.

‘We shall fight…’ said Churchill. Many times.

We may or may not agree with the politics. But we do remember.

It’s not that you can never have long sentences. It’s important to introduce some variety into every aspect of your delivery – especially in formal presentations. You certainly don’t want to overdo the repetitiveness to the point of boring your audience.

It’s really a question of rhythm (which I’ve talked about previously – here, for example).

Your rhythm needs to give us time to absorb what you just said, and you time to gather your thoughts for the next bit.  That usually necessitates daring to reach a full stop more often than you might think.

So everything flows – the words from your mouth, the reaction from your audience.

This also applies to informal dialogues, especially when you want to be persuasive – in customer meetings, say.

If nerves or habit tend to make you verbose, it’s usually counter-productive. Having lost the will to listen, the person you’re talking to either interrupts, or switches off.

Either way, you’re not communicating as well as you could.

Good rhythm sometimes manifests itself most helpfully in something Stephen Fry mentioned in his series on Rhetoric for Radio 4: ‘tricolon’, or the Rule of Three. Since Aristotle’s time, if not before, our brains seem to have been hard-wired to respond well to things in threes, whether that’s:

1. a list of single qualities,
2. a three-point illustration of a main point, or
3. a structure that has a clear beginning, middle and end.

(See what I did there?)

It goes right back to the stories and jokes we heard as children:

…a Mummy Bear, a Daddy Bear, and a Baby Bear…

…an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman…

…three sons who woo the princess and must each undergo the same trial before, inevitably, the youngest son wins her hand.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, provides plenty of examples of the Rule of Three in her excellent 2010 TED talk: ‘Why we have too few women leaders’. For example:

“Today I want to focus on what we can do as individuals. What are the messages we need to tell ourselves? What are the messages we tell the women who work with and for us? What are the messages we tell our daughters?”

And later:

“My talk today is about what the messages are if you do want to stay in the workforce, and I think there are three. One: sit at the table. Two: make your partner a real partner. And three: don’t leave before you leave.”

She then explains what she means by each of those things in more detail.

It’s a simple structure and it works well.

Sandberg also tells a story about a particular course from her college days – and how she, a female friend, and her brother all fared at it. It has the ring of fairytale – which she then stands on its head in support of her main point about the way men succeed and women don’t.

It’s well worth watching or reading in full, if only to notice how many other techniques she uses that I’ve been advocating. (Storytelling, for a start.)

And maybe to think about her message as a result.

Enjoy.  Remember.  Apply.


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