How to Learn Brevity

Brevity is your ability to communicate with as few words as possible.

Brevity is easiest to learn when you accept that there is no point in using two words where one will do. You must ask yourself: what is the value of using more words than I need to convey the same information? Why say this:

“The project is tracking towards needing an extra 5 business days to complete all outstanding work.”

When you can say:

“We’re going to be a week late.”

Time is a resource we cannot get more of, making every second precious. When presenting information, the only resource scarcer than time is attention. People don’t have the patience to listen to someone more interested in filling dead air than conveying valuable information. 

In the rare case that your colleagues tolerate overly wordy monologues, senior management and executives will not. They always have far more information to absorb than they have hours in the day, and communication with them needs to be as brief as possible. Consider a scenario where a CEO stops you in the hallway and asks how your team’s project is going. As the CEO, would you rather this:

“We’re facing an obstacle related to provisioning extra servers, but we have meetings set up with IT management to expedite and prioritize purchasing.”

Or this:

“We’re blocked by IT.”

Executives are professional problem solvers, and the faster you can get them to understand the problem, the more likely they will intervene on your behalf when you need help. Furthermore, if a CEO knows that every interaction with you will be brief and straight to the point, they are far more likely to talk to you regularly as they know you won’t be wasting their time. 

While spoken brevity is a skill that requires a significant amount of confidence and quick thinking to do well, written brevity requires neither. When making a presentation, writing a document, or crafting an email, you have as much time as you need to remove any extraneous information you don’t need. It is easy for everyone to tell if a document was carefully edited or just written with as many words as possible, with no regard for the value of other people’s time. The benefit of careful editing is not only an increased level of clarity but also that you dramatically increase the odds that your colleagues will actually read what you write.

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