Saying more with more
LinkedIn connections often post helpful tips about communicating with impact: Know what you’re trying to say. Keep it short. Use simple words. Get to the point. Avoid extra words and details.
Quick, brisk and sharp define communications today, certainly in the work zone. Texting, Twitter and Facebook demand brevity. Emails blur past the first two lines. PowerPoint decks with 25 slides are a firing offense. Have a presentation or pitch? What’s the headline? Bottom line? The bumper sticker, elevator speech, or three key bullets? At work, ADHD is no longer the old brain disorder — it’s a success factor to highlight on the “about me” section of our resumes. Inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness get the job done.
The political world — an astringent test for effective communications — is all about pithy. Trump keeps it short, punchy, simple, even simplistic, with words like brilliant, beautiful, great, smart, strong, winners, and terrible, weak, stupid, morons, losers. Clinton used words like delegitimize, capability and “repudiate this divisive rhetoric.” Without getting into the political here, Hillary was kale. Trump was Krispy Kreme.
Great writers always struggle for the crisp, concise, even curt few words that speak timeless volumes — Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” — mining their bituminous imaginations for usable coal while hoping to stumble on a few rough diamonds and discarding ridiculous metaphors like this one along the way.
The timeless quip, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” has been attributed to many great thinkers and penswards* like Twain, G.B. Shaw, Voltaire, Pascal, Goethe, Churchill, Pliny the Younger, Achy the Elder**, Cato, Cicero, Bill Clinton and Ben Franklin. (Thanks, quoteinvestigator.com.) I mostly appreciate Kerouac’s version — “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple” — and Stephen King’s, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” He’s definitely extremely correct.
(And before anyone snarks about this piece, I know it definitely extremely could be improved and cut back. But my editorial staff — me — struggles to be objective.)
As an erstwhile speechwriter, I do think the New Brevity is killing the profession and “art form”. The standard major speech was always 15–20 minutes, or 2000–2700 words (people tend to talk at ~135 words per minute). Commencement addresses, delivered when grads, families, faculty and university officials are just hoping to get through the event and move on with their lives, have to be shorter, 10 minutes, max. And the commencement remarks need to be funny, headline-grabbing, or anything by someone famous like the honorary Dr. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.
FDR offered timeless advice to public speakers: “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.” He followed it. His second “forgotten man” inaugural address in 1937 to pull the nation through the Great Depression was about 13 minutes. His third inaugural address in 1941 to “muster the spirit of America, and the faith of America” to triumph in the bloody fight in Europe and the Pacific to save the nation, democracy and the world, was about 10 minutes. President Obama’s Second Inaugural address was roughly 15 minutes; Trump’s first, 10.
With today’s short-attention demand for pithier, punchier, get-to-the-point communications, speechwriters and all writers in the working world need to cut the proverbial 20-minute speech down to 5 minutes while adding a few important points. It’s a classic challenge that’s also an opportunity to summon the poet within, if he or she even exists and isn’t already too drunk, lying on the floor next to the desk chair and unable to reach the keyboard.
But the writer’s life, we all know, isn’t real life. And the tips about communicating with impact in the workplace don’t always work in the real place, the real world, where real people talk with each other in real ways. We fumble and falter and mumble and ramble about what we think or feel because we can’t find the right words, assembled the right way, to express what we’re thinking or feeling. We don’t keep it short, use simple words, get to the point, and avoid extra words and details.
For example — and I hesitate to mention because you may begin to notice and be distracted — look at how many needless idiomatic expressions we hear people use every day. To name a few:
Be that as it may…
That said …
I have to say …
I’m here to tell you …
What I’m trying to say is …
Know what I’m saying?
To make a long story short …
Who goes by the name of …
My lips to God’s ear …
Notwithstanding the aforementioned …
This, that and the other …
Da-dut-da-dut-da-dut (or blah blah blah) (or the Seinfeld yadda yadda yadda) (or other variations on “et cetera,” or “so on and so forth”)
Feel free to offer your own examples.
The quirks and needless verbiage can be annoying. Or fun to lovingly mock, as we hope those who love us will mock us lovingly as well. As we do with them, people who care about us and what we think and feel gladly will suffer — and maybe be charmed by — our fumbling, faltering, mumbling and rambling. Like this piece.
One of the great aforementioned thinkers and penswards who mused about the difficulty of communicating with efficiency and economy, the 17th century philosopher John Locke, prefaced his famous “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (thank you again, quoteinvestigator.com) with an apology:
“I will not deny, but possibly it might be reduced to a narrower Compass than it is; and that some Parts of it might be contracted: The way it has been writ in, by Catches, and many long Intervals of Interruption, being apt to cause some Repetitions. But to confess the Truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy to make it shorter.”
Be that as it may, notwithstanding the aforementioned, what I’m trying to say, and I’m here to tell you, to make a long story short, this gentleman who goes by the name of Locke could have cut his apology down to three bullet points: Piece needs work. Calendar jammed. Whatevs.
My lips to God’s ear. Just sayin’.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington communications professional and writer
*I made up “pensward.” But it sounded real.
**I made up “Achy the Elder.” But it’ll be me and all of us soon enough.