The Brevity Economy


Last year, I met one of my heroes, coach and motivational speaker/author Phil Jackson.  I introduced myself as a fellow speaker and we shared a glass of wine.  During the course of the conversation, he shared his favorite piece of public speaking advice: “Be brief, be seated.” 

This quote, originally from Franklin D. Roosevelt, underscores the secret effective meetings of all types: Practice radical brevity. This concept bears true today, more than ever. Time is at a premium.  One of the biggest roadblocks to meetings these days it the lack of time to hold them!  Still, we schedule one hour keynotes, ninety minute breakouts and four hour dinners!  In the brevity economy, this does not add up. 

The solution is to shave down the allotted time for meetings and speeches.  The annual TED talks, launched by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1990, sported a novel format of an 18 minute keynote.  It was enforced with an active moderator and a public countdown timer.  The TED talks rank with some of the best of our time.  The format works because it forces the speaker to tell a single story and focus on takeaway advice instead of padded premises and never ending stories. 

In Brief – The takeaways: 

1.  When you plan your next meeting, whack all the presentations down to 30 minutes, including the breakouts — especially the breakouts!  This will allow you to compress a three day meeting into a two day meeting (saving some serious cash along the way.) 

2.  Next time you are asked to speak, offer to do a compressed talk in 30 minutes sans power points (unless you have some compelling images to show.)  

3.  Take this to your bizlife, shortening internal meetings to 30 minutes (small group) or 45 minutes (large group).  Bring a stopwatch to the meeting and have the most senior person in the room serve as timekeeper and enforcer.  Develop a reputation as a minute miser and you’ll get standing room only crowds.  

One of my favorite Mark Twain stories involves the first time he attended a lecture by contemporary philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Twain attended at the urging of his wife, Olivia Langdon.  Fifteen minutes into his sermon, Twain turned to Olivia and remarked, “he’s great!” Thirty minutes deeper into Emerson’s screed, Twain shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “He’s alright, I guess.” One hour later, as Emerson mercifully concluded his remarks, Twain took five dollars out of the collection plate!