I’ve always found it encouraging that Mark Twain once told a friend, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” He was making a point speakers and writers know well. It is that brevity is best, but it is harder. It takes thought, skill, and time. Most folks won’t pay the price for brevity, so they choose verbosity. It doesn’t serve them well.
I remind you of these famous words of Twain’s because I’m eager for you to use the weapon of few words wisely crafted. They can change history. They often have.
Martin Luther is credited with being the spark of the Protestant Reformation. We are told that he did this by nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door on October 31, 1517. It’s true, but Luther went further. He was a gifted pamphleteer and in an age of ponderous theological tomes he mastered the art of vital religious thought expressed briefly, potently, and printed on inexpensive pamphlets. He changed the world with this art.
Charles Wesley fed the Methodist movement with brief words wisely crafted. We call them hymns. His gift for expressing life-changing theology in a few sentences—a few lyrics—shaped a movement and changed the world.
When I think of these examples, I remember a conversation I had with a famous Nashville guitarist. We had both just listened to a gifted but inexperienced guitarist. I could tell something wasn’t quite right. I asked my friend what he heard that I didn’t. He said, “there are too many notes.” In other words, the young musician overplayed his guitar. Had the more famous, skilled guitarist played the same song, he would have done it with fewer notes and more air. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
I bring all this up because we are living at a time when corporations feel the need to explain themselves. My airline wants to assure me that it keeps the planes I fly clean and that the crews will behave themselves. My bank wants to assure me it isn’t racist. My hospital wants to comfort me that it is keeping an eye on my health.
Fine, but they are doing it in emails that are a thousand words long. I don’t read them. No one does.
Suppose my airline adopted the slogan, “We’ve Got You.” Suppose they then in five bullet points told me that they fog their planes with disinfectant between each flight, that their crews wash their hands frequently, and so forth. I’d read it. I’d admire the brevity. I’d remember it. I’d keep flying.
This is what I want to urge you to do. The more pressure a writer or speaker feels, the more emotional they are, the longer they tend to go in speaking and on the page. It hurts their message. And we live in a pressured, emotional age. Do this. Take time to think through language. Plan humor. Plan brief, memorable phrases. Make short, numbered points. Wrap it up powerfully, movingly, memorably. This is the art of communication.
We need your words and thoughts more than ever. Don’t let them get lost in a sea of verbal fluff. Be strong. Be clear. Be memorable. Be valiant. You were made for this.