The Art of Being Succinct


Short beats long almost every time. From presidential speeches to blogs, society seems to prefer brief to bellicose. But keeping things short is not easy.

The late Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, wrote more than 2,000 consecutive weekly “Plain Talk” columns for the newspaper. He did this every week for almost 25 years. Each article was always 300 words or fewer. Nueharth said that his first draft of 500 words or more came relatively easy, but pruning the article down to 300 words often took two or three hours.

There is no short cut to being short. Even famous people struggled with brevity. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it took him about an hour to write a one-hour speech, but two hours or more to pen a 30-minute version. Henry David Thoreau said, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.” Mark Twain reportedly said, “If I had more time, I’d write shorter.”

Make time to be brief

Being long-winded is the fastest way I know to turn people off. And yet, people seem to have trouble getting to the point. This is true with regard to the written word, the creation of YouTube videos, and formal presentations. Even worse, many folks endlessly repeat themselves, effectively not getting to the point multiple times.

The only notable exception to this run-on blather is texting, which in its own, illiterate and graceless way, gets to the point a little too soon. There are several techniques for being more succinct.

First, think through your message in advance, which will allow you to lay out the message in a cohesive, direct manner. Second, learn a few extra vocabulary words. That way, you’ll be less likely to flounder and babble when delivering your point. Third, arrange your points in a numbered sequence, say one through three.

How to be brief when speaking? As someone who teaches presentation skills, I’ll close this article with my best advice for delivering a well-received speech:  Be brief.  Be quiet.