Being Brief

As far back as I can remember, I’ve noticed a strange dichotomy when it comes to brevity. We usually fear being brief, yet we find brevity curiously refreshing when we receive it.

Think back to the last time you were in a two-hour meeting that ran thirty minutes short. The last time you read a really succinct blog post. Watched a movie that didn’t drag on past its reach. Reviewed a piece of code that used a lot less logic than you first expected it would need. Experienced a design that, at first, looked oversimplified but curiously functioned exactly as it needed to.

Think about anything that was simple, straightforward, and said nothing more than needed to be said.

My guess is that the experience was a pleasant surprise. Pleasant because there wasn’t anything added to muddy the experience. A surprise because, well, we’re more accustomed to experiencing the opposite.

And yet, when faced with the opportunity to be the presenter, we generally have the propensity to do the opposite.

  • Is my presentation long enough?
  • Is my write-up too short?
  • Is this design too simple?

We humans are sometimes silly folk—fearing we’ll provide the very thing that most of us wish to experience ourselves. I’m not exactly sure why this issue exists, but I do think I know what the issue is.

It seems like we measure ourselves against a different set of metrics when we provide an experience compared to when we consume an experience. In the past, when I would—say—give a presentation, one of my biggest fears was finishing up my talk with too much time left on the clock. Oh, the horror!

If I’d been given an hour and could only fill up 30 minutes worth of material, I obsessed over what to do with the next 30 minutes—not whether or not what I had to say was properly enough. And, that’s where verbiage creep comes in. The extra fillers, tangential misdirections, and corollaries that might only serve to confuse what I’ve worked so hard to get across.

And yet, I can’t remember a single time when someone finished something early, only to be met with a backlash of audience members screaming “That’s it!!?!” Brevity, in any medium, rarely rubs the audience the wrong way.

This, of course, isn’t to say that brevity is unequivocally good. If you stop short of getting the point across clearly, that’s incompleteness, not brevity. The work of achieving brevity happens after all the ideas, thoughts, code, or design has been properly laid out. It happens as a result of a difficult and sometimes lengthy whittling process.

Brevity isn’t a sign of laziness, it’s the very opposite. And I’ll leave it at that.