Never forget brevity is the soul of wit

The art of brevity is about removing all the unnecessary linguistic elements to convey our message.


By Shilpa Bhasin Mehra

Published: Tue 8 Feb 2022, 11:47 PM

William Shakespeare coined this phrase in the play Hamlet, written in 1602. The funniest, wittiest statements are short and to the point. To say that brevity is the soul of wit is to say that keeping something succinct sounds wiser, wittier, and even funnier than a long, drawn-out statement.

We are living in the fast age where people are suffering from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), we scan and skim, picking out headings, sentences and single words. Knowing that, we must communicate with extreme efficiency.

It’s amazing how what was written in 1602 seems to be so relevant today. Today brevity is not only desirable but is a virtue. In the times that we are living in, where everything is on the go, from grabbing a sandwich to a coffee to workouts in 7 minutes.

If someone is writing a speech, he may be struggling to cut down his total time to fit within the timeframe. He needs to know that it’s the quality and not the quantity that matters and to keep his writing short and to the point. In another situation, in which someone was giving a very long and boring speech, making the audience yawn with boredom, one audience member may turn to another and sarcastically say, “brevity is the soul of wit” as a way of complaining. This phrase refers to the idea that keeping thoughts to the point sound smarter and wittier.

Why is it that people like to use long sentences where the essence of the matter is lost and the listener bored (maybe confused too). Take pride in simple word choices, rather than flowery phrases.

Use provides, rather than is designed to provide, use because, rather than due to the fact that, use if, rather than in the event of.

People need to get over their love affair with flowery phrases and verbosity. The purpose is to communicate not complicate and bore. With shortage of resources, the most valuable one being time, to waste someone’s time in long drawn talks should be made an offence.

I had decided way back in 2003 that I will make brief conversation and if it was a slightly long one, it should either be of serious interest to the listener or be humorous (we all can do with a laugh). Our life is our biggest teacher. When I was laid up in bed for over 2 years, I had some people who would come and make the most mundane conversation, I would be stifling my yawns and nodding politely. I promised myself then that I would not inflict anybody with boring talks.

One thing that I like about the organised Zoom meetings these days (operative word here being “organised”) is the timetable and timeline to be adhered to. The meeting can be so productive, with no time to yawn for sure. It is amazing how the same matter can be addressed in 30/40 minutes, from introduction to conclusion, with even some time for Q&A. The same matter was discussed at length in a 9 to 5 conference and when we came out of the room, I don’t think we were smarter. The coffee breaks were most awaited and the best part of those conferences (a breath of fresh air).

Technology has further spoilt us with choices of WhatsApp, emojis and abbreviations. Forget about writing a nice beautiful birthday wish, people type HBD. When this is the pulse of the people, where is the scope of lengthy conversations.

Different people, different strokes. We can spend hours talking to our friends and loved ones, yet can’t wait to disconnect the phone with some others. In law, we place a lot of importance on free will (when we are making contracts for example). My request would be please let our talks/meetings be of our free will (mutual for sure).

The art of brevity is about removing all the unnecessary linguistic elements to convey our message. Just like sculptures are produced by removing excess stones, diamonds become precious after they are polished and the carbon is removed, let our words actually convey our message.

Of course, brevity isn’t all pros and no cons. Brevity without consideration can come off as tactless and cold. It doesn’t give you carte blanche to be rude. Saying, “This looks bad,” to a presentation will probably end up in offending the presenter. Saying, “This would look better if we added a message,” starts a healthier conversation.

There’s an old saying that the more you say the less people hear. So, the choice is yours, do you want to say more or be heard more. “Brevity is a great charm of eloquence”, sums up Marcus T Cicero just perfectly.

Shilpa Bhasin Mehra is a legal consultant based in Dubai and the founder of SBM Consultancy (formerly Legal Connect).

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