Brevity 101

Nothing informs the future of business communication more than the need for brevity in meetings and presentations. 

In fewer than 500 words, let’s look at the case for brevity and then at how to achieve it. Feel free to read this as a call to action – for yourself, your team and/or your organization!

The Case for Brevity

Clearly, brevity in presentations is a trend. Of the most popular formats, TedTalks, which typically share deep insights and are capped at 18 minutes, are the longest. There are also presentation events like Pechakucha – 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide – which have become almost a club sport in some cities.

In online training, the rage is microlearning – nuggets of material delivered in only 90 seconds or two minutes, consuming very little of the user’s time and attention but delivering something of value.

Audiences are demanding more of these brief formats. It’s not just that attention spans are shrinking – according to research, they’ve always been limited – it’s that the combination of a device and a WiFi connection is a formidable competitor. 

Finally, let’s face it, we all crave brevity because we’re tired of wasting time in unnecessarily lengthy meetings and presentations.

How to Achieve Brevity

Brevity isn’t simply about shortening the time by talking and moving through your material faster, it’s about homing in on what’s meaningful about your content and getting to the point sooner, with less mess. It’s about delivering the meat without a lot of side dishes obscuring it. Brevity is efficiency in communication.

So, what does it take to be brief? 

You need to plan, prioritize and package your material. 

How?

First, life and attention spans are short. Serve dessert first. In your opening, deliver your call to action or the ultimate takeaway of your presentation. Don’t wait until the end.

Second, go modular. Prepare your presentation not as a narrative but in chunks that are linked by transitions. Break down the chunks into big fish and little fish. 

Your big fish are your main points, and you state those first. If your presentation is informative, big fish statements will sound like a summary that captures the importance of a section of material. If your presentation is persuasive, your big fish statements will sound like a statement conveying value or benefit for your section(s) of material.

Your little fish are the background information and detail – evidence, if you will – that support your big fish. Little fish are subordinate to big fish and come second.

Delivering a presentation that is front-loaded with information (little fish) can be overwhelming and confusing to your audience. Packaging your information inside of a main point (big fish) and delivering that first helps to set context and foster greater understanding and retention. Information, or too much information, is the enemy of brevity. Be selective and prioritize information based on your audience’s appetite and interests. 

Communication is the currency of success, and brevity is the future of individual and organizational effectiveness. 

#Brevity

Nothing informs the future of business communication quite like the need for brevity in meetings and presentations.

Brevity is not simply about using less time or saying less, it’s about being efficient with your communications. It’s about identifying the meaningful, meaty parts of your content and delivering those without unnecessary fluff, background or side points.

Brevity requires you to prepare, prioritize, and package your material. Prioritizing is the key here.

A couple of #Brevity tips:

  1. Serve dessert first: If you have a takeaway or call to action, don’t save it for the end, deliver it up front (the ultimate priority!). It helps set context and expectations, which are important for holding onto audience attention.
  2. Go modular: Build your presentation in chunks rather than in a narrative so you can remain adaptable. You might be reading your audience and want to jump to only the most important chunks (prioritizing again!), or your time might be cut short unexpectedly. Chunks leave you prepared and nimble.
  3. Know your big fish and little fish: Within those presentation chunks, know your main points or big fish (this requires you to … yep, prioritize your material) and your supporting information or little fish. Big fish come first. Leading or inundating with lots of little fish, or too much information, is overwhelming to both speaker and audience.

Even if attention spans were infinite, which we know they’re not, brevity is more efficient, which is valued and appreciated in any workplace!

Brevity. Period.

Brevity.

One really easy and effective technique for keeping yourself on a diet of short and sweet is to think about talking less and engaging more – making your presentations more of a give and take. For example, make a point and then open up the floor for questions or discussion. Besides creating a change in stimulus, this gives you two other advantages: It provides you with feedback on your audience’s level of understanding and buy-in; and it gives you insight into their biases and self-interests, both of which you need to know to achieve your desired outcome. I often encourage clients to use this technique when they’ve been asked to speak for an hour. Knowing full well that an audience can hang in there for maybe 20 minutes at a time, I encourage people to switch it up and take a Q & A break after each topic section of their presentation, rather than saving audience comments and questions for the end.

Another way to enforce brevity on yourself is to be a minimalist in your preparation. By that, I mean limit your written preparation to some simple bullet points. Once you get involved in writing a script for yourself, you become more and more wedded to the actual words you’ve written and the detail you’ve fleshed out in your script. I have found that some people need to start with a full-text script for their preparation and then work their way down to bullet points, once they’re comfortable enough and familiar enough with the direction and content of their talk. That’s great, too.

Ultimately, if you walk into a room with just the bullet points, you’ll be less attached to the beautiful words and sentences you wrote and you’ll be able to be more present with your audience. This is not to say that there aren’t times that call for a full-text script; there may well be. But be aware that a script can shift you and your attention more to delivering what’s on the paper than to connecting with the audience.

[Excerpted from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports Worldhttp://amzn.to/1vkcxjz]

Err on the Side of Brevity

“No one ever complains about a speech being too short!”    – Ira Hayes
There are lots of quotes that convey the same sentiment – e.g. “always leave them wanting more” – and for good reason. You can never really be too brief, but you surely can be too long-winded.
So the tip of the month is to err on the side of brevity. Even the best speakers can lose their audiences when they overstay their welcome.

You’ll never be criticized for being brief; you’ll probably be thanked for allowing the audience time to ask for the detail they’re interested in hearing! 
It is, after all, all about them!

Q4 Challenge

It doesn’t take much to be a good leader-communicator. Perfection may be elusive, but being good enough to earn the admiration of your team are well within reach. Adherence to a few core principles takes care of most situations.

In my book Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, I walk readers through the philosophy behind, and application of, these 5 principles: Audience-centricity, Transparency, Graciousness, Brevity, and Preparedness.

Taken together, they send two really important messages about you to your audience: 1) that you care about and respect them, and 2) that you’re real and therefore credible and trustworthy.

Audience-centricity is probably the most fundamental of the five principles. Simply put, audience-centricity is making the audience’s interests and experience a top priority in the planning and execution of a talk. Too many speakers prepare and deliver what is important and interesting to themselves without enough careful consideration of their listeners. Being audience-centric is a mindset shift that encourages the speaker to prepare and deliver content in a way that will matter to and resonate with the audience.

Transparency is exactly what you think it is; it’s about being open and direct—yes, and honest, too. Transparency is critical. It contributes to the levels of sincerity and trust that are accorded to you by your audience.

Graciousness is the art, skill, and willingness to be kindhearted, fair, and polite. As motivators and influencers, love and peace work far better than hate and war. Speaking in positives rather than negatives leaves lasting, favorable impressions. 

Brevity is a crowd-pleaser and needs no further introduction.

Preparedness speaks for itself as well, especially because the unprepared speaker is the one who is most likely to be longwinded, not to mention unfocused. While the mere thought of preparation might bring on feelings of dread or even impossibility, there are ways to prepare that take only seconds but that can greatly enhance a speaker’s effectiveness.

As you settle in for the homestretch toward year-end, I would encourage you to pick one of these principles as your personal pet project for the remainder of Q4. Which one of these 5 do you feel like you need to improve on the most? Or which one of these 5 would have the most impact on your business if you strengthened it? Pick one and go for it!