Be Brief

blaise pascalIn a blog and twitter infected world, you would think that we have all learned to be brief. A never-ending parade of 50 slide ppt decks, run-on emails, and hour-plus lectures reminds me that we haven’t. It’s hard to get to the point.

If you’re guilty of long emails or verbose marketing copy, remember the famous line from philosopher Blaise Pascal:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.
Lettres provinciales XVI, 1656

Most people think this quote was from Mark Twain. Did you?

If you like 45-minute keynotes or two-hour meetings, you might consider this recommendation from Franklin D. Roosevelt to his son James on how to make a public speech:

Be sincere, be brief, be seated.
Basic Public Speaking, page 12, 1963

TED talks are limited to 18 minutes with public countdown timers. Yet they consistently rank as some of the best of our time because they force the speakers to tell a single, simple story.

Sales representatives love to joke how junior associates continue to present long after the prospect is convinced because “they still have slides to show.” In sales, this is called selling past the close.

A Jan 1901 NY Times story provides the classic example from Mark Twain:

Some years ago in Hartford, we all went to church on a hot, sweltering night to hear the annual report from Mr. Hawley, a city missionary who went around finding the people who needed help and didn’t want to ask for it. He told of the life in the cellars where poverty resided, he gave instances of the heroism and devotion of the poor.  […]

Well, Hawley worked me up to a great state. I couldn’t wait for him to get through. I had $400 in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see greenbacks in every eye.  But he didn’t pass the plate, and it grew hotter and we grew sleepier. My enthusiasm went down, down, down – $100 a time, until when the plate finally came around, I stole 10 cents out of it.

Be brief. Ask for the order. Avoid a crime.

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16 Responses to Be Brief

  1. Craig May 8, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    I knew the quote was from Pascal–it’s one of my favorites–buti didn’t have an exact citation. Glad you provided it. There’s also a good example of Laconic speech in Herodotus. Remind me to tell it to you some day.

  2. Mark Ciabattari May 9, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    What a timely, yet epigrammatic blog.

    Your “selling past the close” analogy is epic. I’ve seen it happen firsthand — and it was not pretty.

    “Common sense is not so common” – Voltaire

  3. sapdba May 9, 2011 at 8:13 am #

    A colleague posted this recently:

    An exec once shared that one of his favorite questions to ask is “what’s the most recent movie you’ve seen, and what was it about?”. If the candidate goes on a 5 minute, play-by-play plot summary, that’s a sign that they have difficulty in concisely articulating a complex concept, but if they can sum it up in a word or two, bingo!

  4. Timo Elliott May 9, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Briefly: it’s not about the timing, it’s about the content! War and Peace is not a boring book. Movies can keep us on the edge of our seat for hours. It’s about quality, not about the (lack of) quantity. If there’s a bad presentation/sales pitch, blame the presenter, not the time slot, the number of slides, etc…

    • Jonathan May 9, 2011 at 9:38 am #

      Not a blame game but simply an observation. Movies are immersive and have multiple acts. Books can be put aside and read in multiple sittings.

      Arbitrary shortness can force us to get to the point. Of course, it’s not black and white but people can/should err on the side of brevity.

      • Timo Elliott May 19, 2011 at 12:49 am #

        But brevity can just as well strip out useful detail and reduce it to bland generalities (e.g. some of the 20 min SAPPHIRENOW slots I saw). Again, it’s down to the presenter/content. People jump on shortcuts like the number of minutes, or number of slides, instead of concentrating on whether the content is interesting…

    • murali nagendra October 6, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

      I do agree with the timo, “it’s not about the timing, it’s about the content!” and the way you present it to audience.

  5. rrodatus May 9, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    I thought this is a Goethe quote. But then I checked and obviously it was not written by Goethe, but written to Goehte.

    From Charlotte von Stein (1742-1827), Hofdame in Weimar, an Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

    In German it reads:
    “Lieber Freund, entschuldige meinen langen Brief, für einen kurzen hatte ich keine Zeit.”
    -> “Dear friend, sorry for my long letter, I did not have time for a shorter one.”

    Whoever wrote this, is capturing a very valid dilemma. Being brief can take longer.

    • Jonathan May 9, 2011 at 10:28 am #

      Based solely on the fact that Pascal lived 100 years before Geothe, I would give the edge to Pascal but I don’t want to be accused of French vs German bias…

  6. Julie Barrier May 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Does this mean your blog posts will be shorter from now on? (j/k 😉

    I am a big fan of Blaise Pascal, and often find myself citing his quotes (including this one). Brevity is hard. Simplicity is hard. By nature, people tend to avoid pain. So, they go the “easy” route: easy for themselves (ie, writing the long letter) which is often hard and painful for others.

    I wish more people would appreciate the beauty in something that is seemingly “simple” (like the short letter) and respect the amount of time and thought that goes into making it so. Too often, it’s the stuff that looks complicated and cluttered that gets the positive attention (ie, “wow, they must have have worked really hard on this.”).

    BTW, I would way rather see a 50-page ppt done right (ie, bold words, pictures, tells a story, simple to understand) than a 10-page ppt done wrong (ie, in tiny font crammed with run-on text).

  7. Hariet Meth May 13, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    Can you write an email using only the subject header to get your message across? (I have a client who puts all new direct reports through this exercise.)

    Can you answer a question in 30-45 seconds maximum?

    Both are great exercises for mastering the art of brevity.

  8. Arte May 18, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    Being brief also shows if a person is clear in their thoughts or not. An issue that people have when presenting is that they dont want to leave out anything. Hence the plot by plot recitation when ask to recommend a movie.

    A presenter who knows to select what is relevant and unique about his topic and sticks to just that – will get ALL the money in the pocket – like you mentioned in your post!


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