Brevity is the Soul of Wit

“For sale, Baby shoes, Never Worn.”

It has been said that Ernest Hemingway composed the six-word short story above on a bet, while lunching with fellow writers at Luchow’s Restaurant in Manhattan. Written on a napkin, it was meant to illustrate the power that a few words could wield.

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As for the quote in the title of this page, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” that comes from the William Shakespeare play, Hamlet. Polonius is speaking to the king and queen of Denmark:

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .
Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86–92 __ quoted here

It Can Be Difficult to “Get to the Point”

The human brain did not evolve in order to facilitate clear speech and clear writing. It evolved to help humans find food and shelter, find mates, and keep their children alive long enough to grow to adulthood, and keep the cycle of life going. Human language is a “johnny come lately” cognitive tool, and it requires great discipline in order to communicate with others in a clear and economical manner. Too often we attempt to substitute sheer verbiage in place of simple clarity.

… Brief Lab discovered that nearly three quarters of professionals tune out of presentations within the first minute, stop reading an email after 30 seconds, and stop listening to colleagues after 15 seconds –all because they didn’t get to the point quickly. __ The Fine Art of Getting to the Point

Communication Hierarchy of Discipline

To master communication one must learn self-discipline. Different modes of communication demand different levels of discipline.

  1. Speaking clearly
  2. Writing clearly in prose
  3. Writing clearly in poetic verse

To communicate an idea clearly through speech requires disciplined brevity, because if you go on too long other persons will tune you out.

To communicate an idea clearly in writing prose requires more discipline than through speech, because there is no body language or facial expression, no vocal modulation, no eye contact, no allowing for “hmmms” and “uhhhs” etc. The words must be selected carefully, and placed skillfully. For persons who have difficulty getting the the point briefly and clearly when speaking, learning the discipline of writing can be helpful.

To communicate an idea clearly in poetry is even more difficult, due to the brief and compressed nature of the form. Consider this haiku composed by Paul Holmes:

You and me alone
Madness of world locked away
Peace and quiet reigns

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A haiku is a seventeen syllable poem in three lines, with 5-7-5 syllables respectively. The form comes from Japan. Other forms of poetry may not be so disciplined as haiku, but all forms of poetry share the need to make the most use of the words that are used.

Don’t Over-Explain

Many people live in constant fear of being misunderstood. As a result, they may overcompensate by piling unnecessary sentence upon unnecessary sentence — apparently unaware that the listener has stopped listening five minutes ago. Instead of over-explaining, speakers should pause frequently at appropriate moments and allow the listener to inject some feedback in the form of questions, or suggestions.

If the speaker is too fearful of losing control of the dialogue soliloquy, she should probably reconsider her goals in speaking in the first place. Sometimes trying to write down what one intends to say can bring to the speaker the stark reality of her own incomprehensibility. If you can express the idea in clear and succinct prose, try doing it in poetic verse.

Unlimited Potential of Language

Humans can generate an infinite number of meanings from a limitless number of words. Just how the brain accomplishes this feat is an ongoing study.

“Given the vast number of sentences we can understand and produce, it would be implausible for the brain to allocate individual neurons to represent each possible sentence meaning,” writes first author graduate student Steven Frankland.

“Instead, it is likely that the brain employs a system for flexibly combining representations of simpler meanings to compose more complex meanings.” __ PNAS Study quoted here

Simple ideas are enough for hunting game, growing crops, digging privies, finding mates, building huts, and making weapons to defend the tribe. But as populations grow, and villages turn into cities, the complexity of organization demands the formulation of more complex meanings to be communicated to more people.

The Rise and Fall of Complex Ideas

Taking care of larger populations meant devising more complex systems of providing food and shelter, of eliminating waste and garbage that carry disease, of providing for the defense of the commonwealth, and of trade. These complex systems necessarily evolved over time, requiring the evolution of more complex ideas and systems of writing to assist in their competent description and development.

Better systems of writing and archiving were developed, culminating in the moveable type printing presses that ushered in the world of common language books and journals. Complex knowledge and ideas exploded, and larger numbers of the population were taught to read, write, and formulate complex ideas.

Educated men were referred to as “men of letters,” and the collected written communications of great men and women became treasure troves to others who craved the wisdom and knowledge of exceptional persons.

But then came a terrible onslaught of institutions and technologies that spelled the doom of deep thinking, deep speech, and deep writing — beginning with mandatory public education and proceeding with the world wide web, Twitter, Google, Facebook, and all the rest of the modern curses of “short attention span” dumbing down technologies.

Now even the best of young university graduates have limited patience for deep ideas requiring steep learning curves. Which is why it is so important to be able to “get to the point reasonably quickly.” Because if they get your first point — and you know for a fact that they do get it — it is more likely that they will get your second point, and your third . . . But be patient, get abundant feedback as you go, and never assume they are with you unless you receive incontrovertible proof.

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