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The Lost Art of Brevity

The Power of BrevityDo you ever grow weary of listening to the verbose, or reading the work of those that have issues with clear articulation? I certainly do…but fear not; the lost art of brevity is making a comeback. Those of you that know me have come to understand that I prefer to cut to the chase. I like to get to the root of an issue as quickly as possible. While I appreciate the great oratory skills of those who communicate using wonderful word pictures, or the academics who can wax eloquent while always using the best form of prose, I prefer my business communication to be quick and dirty. In the immortal words of Jack Webb: “The facts ma’am…just the facts.” In today’s post I’ll look at the benefits associated with the resurgence of brevity.

Let me begin clearly stating that it is not my goal to be perceived as a word-basher.  I appreciate anyone who has command of a great vocabulary, but I don’t have time for a 30 minute explanation of something that could have been, and should have been, communicated in 2 minutes. Brevity is rare because it takes both skill and effort to simplify the complex. It’s easier to remain ethereal, vague and ambiguous than it is to communicate with purpose and clarity. My message today is a simple one – refining your communications skill is well worth the effort. Don’t be the person known for rambling on, be the person known for being articulate and to the point.

Probably the greatest example of the power of brevity comes from what is widely considered to be the greatest speech in American history: “The Gettysburg Address.” President Lincoln’s speech was only 10 sentences long (272 words), and lasted less than a mere 3 minutes in length. Contrast Lincoln’s brilliant example of the power of brevity with the keynote speech that day. The renowned orator Edward Everett preceded President Lincoln on the podium at Gettysburg. Everett’s speech was an amazing two hours in length. He was after all the President of Harvard, but I digress…My question is this: which speech was more effective, and more memorable? Ah, the power of brevity…

The good news is that there are two big trends emboldening those of us who prefer brevity over other more irritating forms of communication. First is the time pressure for our attention. People simply don’t have the time to listen to, or read, unnecessarily long forms of communication. The second trend is technology’s recognition of the first trend. Emails, voicemails, instant messages, text messages, blogs, Tweets, Facebook updates, etc., simply don’t lend themselves to the indulgence of pompous grandeur.

If you think I’m joking when I mention Twitter, think again. If you want to become a better writer and refine your sense of brevity, all you have to do is to start Tweeting. Regardless of how you feel about Twitter as a platform or practice, it is brilliant in its mandate of brevity. Twitter requires that all your communication be conducted in 140 characters (including punctuation and spaces) or less. Even given this stringent requirement, some of the most intriguing, complex, savvy, and sometimes ridiculous thoughts are being expressed at a rapidly growing pace. In 140 characters or less, elections are influenced, news is being broken, relationships are being created and expanded, brands are being built, trust is being build, influence is being generated, and products & services are being sold. Don’t underestimate the power of brevity.

One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and if you examine those people in your life you respect the most I’m certain you’ll find they do justice to Shakespeare’s ideal. If you require one last example of the power of brevity, let me ask you to examine the incredible influence that something as brief as a simple quote can have. Think about how often a sentence or two written down in the form of a quote has created a legacy long surpassing many more complex and lengthy works. Most people can cite several of Mark Twain’s quotes, but only a few of his books.

So, how do you know if you’re guilty of contributing to the destruction of brevity? If you exhibit any of the tell-tale signs below you may want to seek out some help:

  1. If your tag-line is more than 4 words in length;
  2. If the most frequently used words in your vocabulary are “and,” “um” & “but;”
  3. If people are consistently dozing off during your keynote;
  4. If the bailout rate on your webcasts are high;
  5. If use of the scroll bar is a requirement for reading your email;
  6. If you run out of time leaving a voicemail message….
  7. If you kill your cell phone battery with one conversation…
  8. If your PowerPoint slides need to be read instead of viewed;
  9. If you URL is so long that it confuses people, and;
  10. If you need a teleprompter to deliver a speech.

Bottom line…I’m in awe of those who have mastered the art of brevity, and after looking back at this post I must admit that I still have some work to do…

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No Comments

    Dan Collins

    March 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    Mike –

    You’re preaching to the choir here.
    Your post – too long. 🙂
    However – You’re good and famous – I’m not.


    I will defer my point to a writer who told a great story in six words:

    “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

      Mike Myatt

      March 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm

      Thanks for stopping by Dan. I always appreciate how you’re ability weave in humor never dilutes your message. I also loved the Hemingway reference. Have a great day Sir.

        Dan Collins

        March 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm

        A man is often measured by how he responds to slings and arrows hurled in his direction – you sir always earn my respect with both your words and the way you respond to my simple attempts to interject opinion. Keep em coming pal.

    Tanveer Naseer

    March 24, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I agree that no one likes to be cornered by a windbag and in today’s frenetic pace, no one has the time and unfortunately also the attention span either.

    I would submit, though, that in conjunction with brevity that we also ensure clarity is also provided through our communications. Sometimes in that rush to simply respond/reply, we can create more confusion/uncertainty in our focus to keep things brief.

    Striking that balance between brevity and clarity is for me one of the keys to effective communication in this digital age.

      Mike Myatt

      March 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm

      Hi Tanveer:

      Thanks for your astute observation that clarity cannot be sacrificed for the sake of brevity. That said, my feeling is that brevity actually enhances clarity. What all of us need to remain on guard against are the people (notice I didn’t say professionals) that always seem to speak at the 30,000 foot level. A high-level overview is fine as a summary, but certainly not for anything beyond that. Vocabulary should be a tool for communicating expertise, and not masking a lack thereof.

      My advice on the topic of clarity, is shall we say, very clear: Don’t settle for ambiguity – require people to justify their positions by being specific. Make these wizards’ of confusion give you examples of relevant experience, or have them explain their business logic in understandable terms. Make sure that your clients, vendors, suppliers, partners, investors and employees all know that you value clear, concise, lucid and accurate communications.

      Thanks again for the great insights Tanveer.

    Tom Schulte

    March 24, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Wonderful post, Mike!

    Concerning my business tagline, it is more than four words, but it supports your idea of quick communication. It is “Leadership Training fit for the Blackberry-Attention-Span.” I use it for my short-format training called Leadership PowerLabs that convey heavy-duty content in 2-hours, or less.

    I used to sell leadership training that was two-days long and much of it was forgettable. So I crafted my PowerLabs to capitalize on the shorter attention spans and it has paid off well.

    On the other side of the coin, we must also watch out for the equally inefficient specter of buzzword/sound-bite/sloganeering that is surely brief, but has no soul.

    Tom Schulte
    Atlanta, GA USA

      Mike Myatt

      March 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      Hi Tom:

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. With regard to your tagline, my version of Letterman’s “Top 10 List” was somewhat tongue-in-cheek and certainly doesn’t apply to the creativity and clarity presented in your statement.

      Since you brought-up the subject of buzzwords, you might be interested in what might be a different perspective on that subject:

      Thanks again for adding value to the thought stream Tom.

    Dan Rockwell

    March 24, 2011 at 5:35 pm


    Great fun!

    You don’t need it but a word of affirmation. Any fool can make something complex. Clarity takes work.

    Regarding tweets – anyone who jokes about tweeting hasn’t moved people to action in 140 characters or less. AND if you want to lead people today you better learn how to do it and do it exceptionally well.

    Be well,


      Mike Myatt

      March 24, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      Straight and to the point, or should I say clear and brief. Thanks for sharing your perspective Dan…

    Wally Bock

    March 24, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Nice post, Mike. It seems to me that we could say of brevity something similar to what Einstein said of simplicity. A communication should be made as short as possible and no shorter. Brevity is not the goal. Communication is the goal. Brevity is a means.

    Doug Barg

    March 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter. ~ Blaise Pascal

    Helen Antholis

    March 26, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I am a huge fan of mental editing – whether when speaking or writing! First the headline please…then the details. Get my attention and I’ll listen better. Thanks for this post.

    I’m distilling 30+ years of leadership/communications training experience into a 20-page ebookette (my term). To say less, you need to know more. Bravo on this.

    And please, thank your son for his service our country.

    Helen Antholis

    March 26, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I am a huge fan of mental editing – whether when speaking or writing! First the headline please…then the details. Get my attention and I’ll listen better. Thanks for this post.

    I’m distilling 30+ years of leadership/communications training experience into a 20-page ebookette (my term). To say less, you need to know more. Bravo on this.

    And please, thank your son for his service our country.

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