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  • Eli Gottlieb

A Long Lesson in Brevity


This week, I addressed a session at which educational leaders presented their projects in the form of a poster.

In my previous meeting with this group, I had given a 75-minute lecture on "the art of concision." I had presented several rules of thumb for concise communication. This included: avoid long words, complex sentences, and redundancies; give concrete examples; use stories, and "show, don't tell. The lecture had gone well. I felt I'd not only got my message across but had modeled the good habits I was advocating. I got good feedback from the fellows and saw them taking my advice into account as they worked on their posters over the subsequent weeks.

And then came my address at the poster session. Instead of brief remarks with a single, clear message, I gave a twelve-minute speech about concision, which broke almost every rule of thumb I'd advocated.

To be fair, there were extenuating circumstances: I had little time to prepare and lots of good ideas. I'd over-committed in terms of other teaching and presenting responsibilities that week but was confident that I'd figure something out in time for the poster session.

So, right there, before I even get started, are two tough lessons in brevity. First, hubris breeds prolixity. The belief that clarity will come without you working on it is usually unjustified. Second, good ideas are no guarantee of a good talk. Too many good ideas can be just as problematic as too few.

Because this is a blog, I get to write what I want. I have no word or time limits. I'm going to exploit that freedom now to share with you some of the ideas about brevity that I just couldn't help presenting.

I have already started thinking about how I might have presented them differently – which ideas or quotations I would have cut, which I would have shortened or paraphrased, and so on. But, in the spirit of peer review and collective wisdom, I invite you to write in with suggestions of your own about how to make these remarks briefer and clearer.

Here goes:

In Exodus (4:10), Moses says of himself "I am not a man of words." But then comes Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is known as sefer devarim, or, the Book of Words. The book is perhaps the longest goodbye speech on record. For an entire book of the Bible, Moses doesn't stop talking.

From this we learn that what we say about how we use words and how we use words in practice are not always the same.

One of the virtues of brevity is that it forces us to keep things simple. As Einstein famously noted with respect to ideas, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Well, yes, he is indeed famous for this quotation. But a little investigation on the internet revealed that he didn't put it exactly this way. What he actually said (at the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford University on June 10, 1933) was:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

Hardly a model of simplicity!

Once again, we find that when it comes to keeping things brief and simple, it's not easy to practice what you preach. We also learn an important lesson about the value of editors. Subsequent paraphrasers made Einstein's aphorism unforgettable - something he couldn't do on his own.

These ideas and lessons are valuable in their own right. But today I want to focus on why brevity is especially important for educational leaders.

The author Stephen King has given a lot of thought to the practice of writing. But he thinks that writers, himself included, aren't very good at discussing their craft. I think the same is true of educators. Here's Stephen King (2000, p.11) on writing. As you read him, replace the words "writing" and "fiction writers" with "education" and "educators."

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do -- not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit.

Another reason why brevity is important for educational leaders is that a so much of their work involves persuading others. Leaders in education rarely have the power to impose their will; they need to convince people (funders, administrators, parents, teachers) that their ideas are worth supporting and implementing.

This aspect of brevity is highlighted in the following editorial that appeared in a Financial Times in 2009 following an especially long speech by Libyan dictator, General Muamar Gaddafi, at the United Nations.

There are few rules of thumb as dependable as these: first, if the word “democratic” features prominently in a country’s official name, the chances of it holding free elections are low; second, if a head of state speaks at length rather than to the point, it is fair to assume the head of state is not in the habit of seeking election, but may depend on some other attribute – patronage or the armed forces, for example – for his or her power … Brevity is the soul of wit. There are few speeches that could not be made more elegant by their curtailment. But brevity is also, in the modern world, the soul of democracy. Politicians who need to persuade their audience rather than harangue them must compress their points into a format to which their constituency can relate.

Educational leaders can't, and shouldn't, rely on force or patronage to implement their vision. To lead sustained change they need to convince others and build coalitions. And to do this, they must speak clearly and concisely to multiple audiences.

I want to end with a story. Like the earlier Einstein quotation, it too may be apocryphal. But it's too good a story to be ruined by the facts.

In a raucous drinking session with other authors, so legend has it, Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a novel in six words or fewer. He took up the challenge and later argued that the resulting novel was the best he'd ever written. It goes like this:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This Hemingway legend has inspired many creative projects in brevity. My favorite of these is a website that specializes in four-word film reviews.

So, in the spirit of Hemingway, here's my seven-word summary of this poster session:

You created; you presented. Now show us.

By "show us" I mean two things. Show us by persuading us: Convince us with compelling arguments and evidence that what you propose is something we should support. And show us by turning your ideas into reality. Create existence proofs of the kinds of education and community you wish to foster.

And now, dear reader, it's your turn. How to say all the above more briefly and simply?


#education #leadership #brevity #concision #Einstein #StephenKing #writing #Gaddafi

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