From the Field: The Soul of Wit

Brevity is the soul of wit.


—Polonius, Hamlet II.ii (William Shakespeare)

While brevity may be the soul of wit, sayings about brevity happen to be pretty witty too. Here are a few of my favorite sayings and stories surrounding this important theme.

In a letter published in 1657, Blaise Pascal was the first (of many) to note that he would’ve written a shorter letter, if only he had more time.

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

Similarly, when Woodrow Wilson was asked by a member of the Cabinet about the time it took him to prepare his speeches, he reportedly replied:

It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.

As Quote Investigator notes, this saying predated Wilson, but his version is the most popular.

This one was given to me, quite appropriately, by my father-in-law, Lee:

When asked by his son James for advice on public speaking, Franklin Delano Roosevelt replied:

Be sincere, be brief, be seated.

On November 19, 1863, Edward Everett delivered a two-hour speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, followed by a two-minute speech by Abraham Lincoln—the Gettysburg Address.

The next day, Everett wrote Lincoln a letter saying,

I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.

Actress and speech coach Dorothy Sarnoff is reported to have said:

Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.

And here’s a related saying attributed to Ira Hayes:

No one ever complains about a speech being too short.

As all of the above examples suggest, brevity is not only the soul of wit: it is also an important tool for effective communication. But how can we actually achieve brevity? While there’s no easy formula that will work in all cases, here’s an exercise that can help with thinking about it.

When I was a student at Stanford, I performed with the Stanford Improvisors. One of the games we often played was called Half Life.

First, we’d play a 1 minute scene.

Then we’d replay that scene in 30 seconds.

Then we’d play it again in 15 seconds, 7.5 seconds, and 3.75 seconds, etc.

The idea was to distill the scene down to its essence by progressively making it more concise.

While it may seem a little bit silly, this game can actually be a good exercise for distilling your real world messages too. If you know you have 60 minutes to speak, what you would say if your time was unexpectedly cut down to 30 minutes? What if it was cut down to 15 minutes? To 7.5 minutes? To 3.75 minutes?

By using this exercise, you can begin to distill your message to its core, which can help you with prioritizing your main points and picking the right “tip of the iceberg.”

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