The Power of Brief
Transform the World
By Tim Sanders
I MET ONE OF MY HEROES, BASKETBALL COACH AND MOTIVATIONAL ZEN MASTER PHIL JACKSON LAST YEAR. I introduced myself as a fellow speaker, and during the course of the conversation he shared his favorite piece of public speaking advice, “Be brief, be seated.” This quote, originally from former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, underscores the secret to effective meetings of all type: Radical brevity.
This concept rings true today, more than ever. Time is at a premium, along with attention and engagement. We are swimming in too much information, meetings that run too long and a world filled with filibusters of all types. One of the biggest roadblocks to offsite meetings these days is time—there are no luxury days to spare. Consider, though, the time-acumen of the average meeting (internal or external): Presentations run an hour, breakout sessions can run twice that long and events span three to five days.
In the brevity economy, this will not add up!
The solution is to keep everything brief and to the point. The annual TED talks were launched by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1990, sporting an unusual format: Each keynote was limited to less than 20 minutes, a time restriction enforced with a massive public countdown timer. Although this is a fraction of the allotted time for the average convention talk, the TED talks have been world changing. The format has caught on in the meeting industry, from associations to corporations. The result is a compact presentation, focused on takeaway advice and single-point stories. In the last few years, I’ve been invited to speak at no less than a dozen of these mini-keynote format events, which usually have standing-room-only attendance.
Meanwhile, in the corporate information world, shorter is also catching on. New-hire orientation programs instruct employees to “fit their comments in the preview pane of the e-mail” or wait until the next meeting to explain their points. Power briefs (two pages maximum), review meetings, project and process improvements replace the bloated PowerPoints and PDFs that dominated the last 10 years, improving efficiency in communications, reducing the need to read and increasing time available to create and execute.
There’s a new paradigm in the working world: Less is more. Shorter speeches, articles, notes and meetings all enjoy more success because they provide the same value in less time. Gone are the days of stretching out your message to prove your worth. Verbose is out, concise is in.
There are several ways to harness this trend in your professional meeting life. First, look at your next event’s schedule and sharpen your pencil. Cut the keynotes to no more than 30 minutes. This is especially true for internal speakers. Limit PowerPoint slides to a dozen and discourage too much text or bullet points on slides. Keep breakout sessions down to a half hour, 45 minutes maximum including Q&A. Maintain the length of meals and breaks to encourage networking and bonding. Schedule adjustments can convert a three-day meeting into a two-day event, saving time and money.
Next, trim down event information into digestible chunks. Instead of several paragraphs to describe presentations and activities, use Twitter-nomics and summarize it in a sentence or two. Visit The New York Times bestseller list and note how reporters boil tomes down into a single descriptive sentence. Eliminate the reams of handouts related to an event, instead providing single pages of reviews (with hyperlinks if sent electronically). Make every paragraph and every page fight for its life in the editing process.
Finally, apply all of this to your day-to-day work life. Schedule meetings to 30 minutes (small group) or 45 minutes (large group). Take a stopwatch to the meeting and have the highest-ranking attendee act as time keeper. Require event reports to fit on one page. Eliminate PowerPoint slides that don’t illustrate a point. Shave down information, and you’ll discover that you are still getting the job done—except now there’s more time to be creative and keep up.
This new acumen, brevity, can be a big relationship builder for you, whether you’re a planner or a supplier. If you get a reputation for being a minute miser, you’ll get better attendance at your meetings.
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 Emerson’s lecture/sermon, Twain turned to Olivia and remarked, “He’s great!” Thirty minutes further into his screed, Twain shrugged his shoulders, commenting, “He’s alright I guess.” An hour later, right after Emerson mercifully concluded, Twain took US$5 out of the collection plate. One+
TIM SANDERS, a top-rated speaker on the lecture circuit, is the author of Saving the World at Work: What Companies and Individuals Can Do to Go Beyond Making a Profit to Making a Difference (Doubleday, September 2008). Check out is Web site at www.timsanders.com.