This post is part two of a three part series on saving time and being more productive in the workplace. My first post gave three simple steps to stop wasting time. Follow me on to stay caught up with my blog.
An old chap named William Shakespeare once noted that “brevity is the soul of wit.” However, brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s also an important and powerful workplace habit that will make you more productive and a rockstar communicator. While things like body language, knowledge and logical reasoning are all integral aspects of great communication, being able to communicate quickly is the glue that holds it all together.
“brevity is the soul of wit.” - William Shakespeare
In this post I will explore what brevity means for the modern workplace, why it’s important and how you can practice it.
First let’s look at the definition and what it means in the modern context.
According to Google, brevity is concise and exact use of words in writing or speech. Being able to communicate concisely (while being effective) is also a trademark of displaying that you know what you’re talking about. Consider that some of the most well known works of writing are short and almost universally understood. Here are some examples:
Einstein’s theory of relativity
Einstein was a big supporter of making complex scientific concepts easy to understand and as short as possible. His General Relativity paper was about 100 pages and defined the core laws that govern our universe. More importantly, he wrote it in such a way that non-science people like myself could somewhat understand the concepts without knowing the math.
Sun Tzu’s Art of War
Sun-Tzu wrote his war-manual 2,500 years ago and it’s still being used today as a hallmark of military strategy. One would expect such an enduring document to be a lengthy manual. However, it runs about fifty pages and is mostly lists of considerations to keep in mind. It’s a short text but has been used by warring nations for thousands of years. It’s lessons are evident even in today’s context of warfare.
The common denominator between these works is that they are all short, powerful and easy enough to understand even if you’re not familiar with the subject matter. Lastly, consider Twitter’s 140 character limit. Why would twitter do such a thing?
When you are limited on words, you have to think more about the message.
Why brevity is important
The reason for brevity’s importance is twofold: saving time and dealing with people. When we are able to communicate things quickly, we just spend less time writing or talking. Because the raw amount of interpersonal communication we do is so high, any minor shavings of time spent result in huge savings over the lifespan.
For example, having a name like Boban is unique but draws out any conversation I have with a support person over the phone. I have to spell it out, clearly dictate Bravo-Orange-Bravo-Alpha-Nancy and confirm their spelling. But if my name was just Bob this wouldn’t be an issue. So, even though I can’t (read don’t want to) change this part of my communication, it does show how powerful my time savings can be if my name was shorter and easier to understand.
Second, any time we deal with people we are tasked with not only communicating with them but making sure that they understand us clearly. This lack of effective communication is often the reason why people break up, lose their job or offend others. Imagine how your life would be different if everyone understood what you had to say the first time around?
Working in the corporate world we all have to write endless emails and have meetings all in the hope that others will understand us clearly. Being able to communicate things quickly and effectively not only communicates the message, but it does so with confidence and certainty.
For these reasons, brevity is one of the most important aspects of a productive and effective communicator.
How to practice brevity
You are not going to be a perfect communicator after reading this post, but you will get a fairly robust roadmap for how to start trimming down your conversations without losing meaning.
Write shorter emails
When writing emails to coworkers, try and be as concise and brief as possible. Consider the last long email you got from someone. What you probably did was go through it and make a “list” in your head of the most important points. What if people could just write in a way that does this arduous work for you? I personally had a huge problem with this until I worked at it and have found the following tips to be very useful.
- Use headings; they work because it keeps the reader on task and lets “skim readers” get the message without digging into all of the content.
- Use lists; lists are a proven way of helping people visually consume information.
- Draft and revise; while practicing the art of brevity it’s useful to draft emails and then actively go back to reduce the word count while making sure it’s clear.
- The 10 second rule; ask yourself if it’s possible for the person to read through the entire email and get the main point of it in ten seconds (useful for most short collaboration).
- Long email disclaimer; if I have to write a long email to someone, I warn them in the introduction and explain why the length is necessary. If you have to explain why it’s necessary whenever your email is long then you will eventually reason that it may not need to be that long and revise accordingly.
Encourage brevity in your organization/team
This one is really important. We all work with that one (or more) person who sends novels via email. Before I read an email I look at the size of the scroll bar to determine how painful it is going to be for me to digest the information. The truth of the matter is that unnecessarily long emails show a lack of respect for other people’s time.
However, if you and your team all communicate in a concise manner then you save time on a compounding basis (every time you get an email or talk to someone). Additionally, this brevity-training creates a “self-policing” cultural value that gets enforced when new people are hired.
Here are some tips for encouraging brevity in your organization in a polite way.
- Initial training; at my company when someone gets assigned an email address they get a “welcome letter” from our IT Administrator with some email tips. We noticed that this has had a profound impact on how we communicate internally.
- Teach co-workers; this one can be tricky, but I find that it’s useful to explain to others that brevity is important for your time. BE WARNED. I tried to communicate this to a contractor years ago and he ended up leaving the company over it. In hindsight, I should have done a better job of explaining why it’s important to me and phrasing it as a personal preference, not a mandatory rule.
- Time constraints; in every office there is that person that talks your ear off. This doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person, but it does mean that you have an opportunity to develop more efficiency. In this scenario I found it useful (and necessary) to specifically approach those people with a time constraint as shown in the dialogue below:
Me: Hey Jane, I was hoping to speak with you about XYZ right now but only have ten minutes before my next appointment.
Jane: No problem, let’s get right to it.
With this approach, you’re addressing the concern albeit in a polite and respectful way. Again, be warned as I have executed this technique poorly in the past and it makes people quite upset.
By writing shorter emails and encouraging it within your team, you are on the fast track to time savings and being a rock star communicator.
If only I knew how to write shorter blog posts.