Be Concise!

by Stephen Boyd | January 28, 2008

We talk too much in our society. In recent months, for example, presidential candidates have been giving as many as twelve speeches a day. Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal featured an article, “The Hoarse Race,” on how candidates are plagued with laryngitis because of talking too much.

For our speeches to have more impact, let’s consider talking less. When we do talk, we should say what we need to say in as few words as possible. Truman Capote said, “I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.”

In accepting an Oscar for her 1949 role as a deaf-mute in “Johnny Belinda,” Jane Wyman said to the Academy audience: “I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut for once. I think I’ll do it again.” And she sat down.

Few of us remember the name of the noted orator, Edward Everett, who spoke two hours at the Gettysburg battlefield. Instead we remember Abraham Lincoln and his two-minute “Gettysburg Address.” Everett, in a note to Lincoln afterward, said, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

One of the great speeches in the past century was John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural address when he committed the nation to go to the moon by the end of the decade. The length of the speech: 14 minutes.

Here are some tips for being concise:

  • Keep sentences short. The self-discipline to do that will aid you in making your point quickly.
  • Avoid unnecessary words. Recently I heard a television weather person, using a map, say, “This is where we are at, right now.” Just saying, “This is where we are” would have been sufficient. “We are here” would have been even better. Avoid “kind of,” “sort of,” “basically,” “actually,” “generally,” and “definitely.”
  • Always revise. When revising what you plan to say or write, you will usually be able to say the message with fewer words. When you revise, you can discover more specific words and eliminate vague referents such as “it” or “they” and substitute with more concrete terms.

Conciseness is saying what needs to be said with the minimum number of words. As Joseph Conrad said, “He who wants to persuade should put his trust, not in the right argument, but in the right word.”

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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