Oswald Letter

Get to the point—the fine art of brevity

blahby Dan Oswald

President Woodrow Wilson was once asked how long it took him to prepare his speeches, and his answer was quite telling. “That depends on the length of the speech,” said Wilson. “If it is a 10-minute speech, it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech, it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to, it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

Wilson understood what so many don’t. To be exacting and concise with your words takes thought and preparation. And there’s a lot to be said for brevity!

I started thinking about this topic the other day when a speaker raised it in his speech. Right from the beginning, he informed his audience that he was going to be brief, and he referenced some noteworthy examples of powerful messages that were delivered with very few words.

George Washington’s second inaugural address is the shortest ever delivered. It is only 135 words in length and took less than two minutes to deliver. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address contains a powerful message, but it is just 272 words long and was delivered in less than three minutes. And the Ten Commandments, with their message that has stood the test of time, contain just 313 words.

The speaker’s point was that unless we have more wisdom to share than Washington, Lincoln, or God, then we need to keep our message brief. But as Woodrow Wilson pointed out, it takes a great deal of effort to keep a message succinct.

Too often people believe that dominating the conversation demonstrates how smart or knowledgeable they are. They do much more talking than listening.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

It seems not enough people understand this. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s nearly impossible to learn anything while you’re speaking.

Whether you’re communicating in writing or by speaking, getting it done with as few words as possible and still successfully conveying your message should be your goal. Flowery prose or elaborate verse doesn’t contribute to effective communication unless your goal is merely to entertain. If you want to get a message across, you need to be clear, direct, and concise.

Don’t look to dominate a conversation. Don’t assume that the more you say, the more important you are. And never believe that brevity somehow demonstrates that you haven’t given considerable thought to your message. The opposite is true.

My apologies for taking nearly 500 words to share my message.

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