The Benefits of Brevity

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering a campaign address in November 1944 at Fenway Park in Boston. FDR, who charmed America with fireside chats and galvanized a nation with memorable refrains, said the key to successful speeches is to "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering a campaign address in November 1944 at Fenway Park in Boston. FDR, who charmed America with fireside chats and galvanized a nation with memorable refrains, said the key to successful speeches is to "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

William Shakespeare called brevity the soul of wit, and Dorothy Parker referred to it as the soul of lingerie. In public affairs, brevity is a source of successful speechmaking.

The benefits of brevity are not a secret or a new insight. President Franklin Roosevelt said, "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated." 

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what others say in a whole book." 

And humorist George Burns quipped, "The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible."

Despite such sage advice, speakers continue to drone on, inducing drowsiness in their audience. Worse than that, longwinded speakers frustrate their audiences, drowning out what might have been a powerful, useful message.

Resonating with an audience demands several things, but chief among them is brevity. You need something worthwhile to say. You must organize your thoughts so an audience can trace your train of logic. You should illustrate your key point in memorable ways. And you need to get the job done while people are still paying attention, otherwise the point is lost in a wave of inattention.

Speech coaches properly concentrate on ways to establish immediate rapport, use vivid language and end on an up-note. But sometimes they forget about the health of the heart of the speech, the part about economizing what you say so your words and thoughts stick out.

Louise Brooks, the actress known for popularizing the "bob" hairstyle, offered this advice, 'Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination." Her point is well taken. When writing a speech, don't think of everything you can say; think of everything you can leave out.

It is not just an issue of shortened attention spans; it is a case of limited space in people's brains to absorb and store information. Making your point and being brief is one way to claim space in the mental warehouse of your audience.

In the public affairs world, too many people want to share "all the facts." Unfortunately, audiences and news reporters can be quickly overwhelmed. The result is you lose their attention and they wind up not remembering any of your facts.

A better approach is to select the most salient points. Talk about those. Show why they matter. Explain how they work. Then stop. The discipline of being brief usually brings about increased clarity to your message. You are forced to be specific, to focus, to stick to your main point.

The best compliment a speaker can receive is, "I could have listened to that person all night." Just remember, that's a compliment, not a stage direction.