For and Against Brevity

Here’s some standard writing advice: “Keep it simple.” “Brevity is the soul of wit.” 

Elegant, isn’t it?

But that advice could also be dangerous. The truth is that simplicity and brevity aren’t appropriate for every situation.

 Imagine that you have to disappoint a customer, a child, or a friend. You need to stretch out the explanation to reassure your listener that you really did consider the request and really wanted to fulfill it – but circumstances (or policies, or economics, or something else) got in the way.

Life isn’t always simple. I once had a professor who liked to remind us that complex ideas require sophisticated vocabulary and elaborate sentences. He was right on target.

While sorting through some old magazines, I came across a 2003 news report about the Columbia shuttle disaster. Part of the problem, according to NASA, was the agency’s reliance on…PowerPoint.

Hmmm. Think about it for a moment.

A good PowerPoint slide can have only a small amount of information. Often it will display just a short list of three or four bullet points. A good PowerPoint presentation is easy to follow!

But what if you’re talking about a complicated subject – and all you have to work with is a short list of ideas? Bang, bang, bang – here they come, one right after another. There’s no opportunity for sophisticated cause-and-effect reasoning or back-and-forth debate.

If you want a complex argument to unfold for your audience, I think you should consider another format.

Let me give you an everyday situation that might call for extra time and more explanation. Imagine someone who’s getting panicky as Valentine’s Day approaches. The romance is over, and clearly it’s time for a breakup.

My advice would be not to rely on a brief statement that you want to break up. You’d better be prepared to list some specifics – and you need complex sentence patterns. Trust me: it’s going to be a while before you’re through!


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