Brevity is the soul of wit, which is funny, because it reminds me of this short joke I heard a few months ago...
December 5, 2008 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How can I be less long-winded?

I have a tendency to go on and on, especially with written things (like emails, reports, Mefi comments...) but also in spoken communication too. If I realize what I'm doing while I am doing it, I start to self-edit and get to the point. That switch in my brain doesn't always fire. Part of it, I suppose, is that I don't want to leave anything important out. Getting there can sometimes be like telling an epic saga, I swear.

I don't want to be the boring/rude person who doesn't know when to shut up. Do you have any tricks or tips to keeping it brief?
posted by contessa to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've been working on this myself. The only thing that I can tell you is that the more you do it, the easier it will get.

Every time you write a an email or a report or a post, make yourself go back through it a couple of times (preview is great for that). Look for places to "trim the fat" or simplify things by restructuring. I'm finding that I write long and convoluted things that could be said with half as many words (or less).

Here's the idea applied to what I just typed above:

I do the same thing. I'm learning to make a habit of slimming things down. Force yourself to do the same and it will begin to get easier.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 8:32 AM on December 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

What I did there, did you see it? ;-)
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 8:33 AM on December 5, 2008

I've been noticing this recently in my writing. What helps me to limit it is by limiting my overall time per comment. I try to get my point across now in as few words as I can, and only elaborate if it's really crucial for understanding. Such as I just did in this comment!
posted by Meagan at 8:35 AM on December 5, 2008

To help with the written things, put a sticky note above your monitor that says something like, "More is Less." Something to act as a reminder to self-edit and look over what you've written and cut some things out. Or to start an email with less in mind.

I find that using bullet points is an easy way to say more with less words. Plus, people are much more likely to read something if it's broken into points rather than long, daunting paragraphs.
  • See what I mean?
  • I bet more people read this than the paragraphs above.

posted by nitsuj at 8:45 AM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Second ElDiabloConQueso, make a habit of going back through and trimming your writing every time.

Specifically, look at what information you're trying to convey. You're better off cutting out ideas and statements that aren't really necessary than you are trying to cut down individual sentences without removing the meaning. That way you can still say things in the best way rather than the most concise way, because sometimes a more long-winded version of an individual sentence can better capture what you're trying to say.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:47 AM on December 5, 2008

In business communications, you have to cut to the chase–present your idea, or question, or point of clarification, and then add the other things in as part of the ensuing discussion. Someone may say, "contessa, why do you want to do it that way?" which gives you an opening to discuss the rationale behind your idea/decision whatever. You will get everything out, but not all at once, it will come in digestible chunks.

Put simply, trust your audience. Tell them the core idea, and trust them to ask for details and additional information. Then you are creating an opportunity for dialogue, rather than hogging the mic.

Finally, if it's a big important presentation, or even a medium-importance meeting, rehearse what you are going to say, it will help you be clear, concise and effective in your communications.

In personal communications, you should still try to be succinct, but remember that in many cases, people do enjoy rambling digressing stories. Leave pauses for people to comment, even if it's just "No way! Really?" kinda chorus. That way they feel involved in the conversation.

Sorry for such a long answer, I didn't have time to write a short one.
posted by Mister_A at 8:48 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Famous music story: John Coltrane took famously long saxophone solos. He said to Miles Davis, "I just can't stop playing". Miles said "try taking the horn out of your mouth."

Simple but effective. Take a breath, bring your current thought to a pause, look around for a reaction.

I have a friend who literally can not stop talking. He's quite smart but it gets kind of boring after a while. He's gotten so much better. Recently he told a story that he would have taken 10 minutes to tell 5 years ago, and it took him 1 minute. I was amazed. So you can get better.

Once I physically removed him from my apartment after telling him to stop talking. He was still talking about the same thing as I pushed him out my door.
posted by sully75 at 8:50 AM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: Ok.

Longwinded answer to your question.

When I was studying music, my vocal coach kept emphasising that the audience will never know the difference between an artistic pause and needing to take a breath.

A much later boss's mantra was, think in paragraphs, write in sentences and speak in bullet points.

Not so longwinded after all.
posted by michswiss at 8:53 AM on December 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Do you sort through problems better by rambling to someone? I know I do. I have a couple people at work and my poor wife at home who have learned-to/volunteered-to/given-up-trying-to-ignore being my soundboard for ideas before I present them to the world-at-large.

Doesn't always work, but more often than not, by the end of my ramble, I've identified the important parts of the issue and have a higher chance of success in trying to succinctly present these points to my intended audience.

As others above have suggested, writing your thoughts out first, or putting them in bullet form are good alternatives if your sounding boards aren't available.

Something else to keep in mind is that there's probably a reason you tend to ramble "too long". In my case, in addition to just thinking the idea through, I tend to worry that my audience won't accept my ideas unless I provide a COMPLETE logical picture/argument and in order to not appear 'dumb' I try to anticipate as much criticism or disagreement ahead of time and list my counter-arguments/points BEFORE anyone has a chance to even question anything.... but usually this just gets me a clueless look or worse, information overload.

As Mister_A says, it's about providing digestible chunks... and learning to be patient long enough for your audience to get up to speed. I have to constantly be mindful and often restrain myself from adding more to a conversation than is necessary at that particular moment. It's a struggle I work on everyday it seems.

Good luck.
posted by johnstein at 9:04 AM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

This helped me.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace
posted by evil holiday magic at 9:07 AM on December 5, 2008

I think if you say less with more thought per word, people will respect you more. Especially over email, where they can't tell that you wrote a 4-page letter first then boiled it down to half a page of compact, strong reasoning. If they have questions they will ask; you don't need to try to answer them all up front.

Think of that boiling down as a necessary part of your writing, like cleaning up for guests. You don't have do to it every time, but you should at least be aware of not doing it.
posted by fleacircus at 9:07 AM on December 5, 2008

Omit needless words.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:22 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Start using Twitter. It will force you to be concise.
posted by desjardins at 9:23 AM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Try reading some authors noted for their efficient use of language--E.B. White, Hemingway, etc.
posted by HotToddy at 9:24 AM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: My beloved 8th grade English teacher had a sign over the blackboard that said: "Make it as short as possible--but not shorter."

A great exercise to develop brevity is to try to describe something (a piece of fruit!) with no adjectives. You can learn the power of verbs this way. I try to keep things short by concentrating on the idea of the verb as the "muscle" of a sentence, doing action X to Y. "He murdered a cop!" Then you sprinkle other, descriptive words and phrases, sparingly and only as needed.

You will be amazed once you start to count how many redundant words are in most people's sentences. A common tic is to add quibbling, qualifying words that actually work against the raw power of a basic sentence. For example, it's more powerful to say that something is "huge" than to say it's "really huge."

I also like to keep in mind Stephen King's idea that a sentence is like an act of ESP, trying to make the other person see something (a red telephone!). It helps remind me that the idea I'm trying to get across is even more important than the sentence itself, and somehow that helps cut through quick.

Another fun English cheat that can help: Try replacing words that come from Latin and French ("communication," "homicide") in favor of ones with hardcore German roots ("talk, murder"). I'm no linguist but those Saxon words will just hit you in the gut, while long-winded speech (like legalese) tends to go the opposite direction, with flowery words and sentence patterns that take up more breath.
posted by Kirklander at 9:44 AM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have a tendency to go on and on, especially with written things (like emails, reports, Mefi comments...) communication, but also in spoken communication too when speaking. If I realize what I'm doing while I am doing it, I start to self-edit and get to the point. That switch in my brain doesn't always fire; Part of it, I suppose, is that I don't want to leave anything important out. Getting there can sometimes be like telling an epic saga, I swear.

I don't want to be the boring/rude person who doesn't know when to shut up. Do you have any tricks or tips to keeping it brief?

:) Does it matter if you ramble a bit when speaking? I agree that it can be helpful to think while you're speaking if that's the way you clarify an issue. Stop if you catch yourself using different words to make the same point twice.

Try to be confident about what you're saying. Unless they're necessary, don't be afraid to eliminate phrases that are used to hedge: "I suppose," "I think," "Maybe it's," "it could be that." I learned that from trying to write in French; my professors would see these little phrases as redundant and, sometimes, ungrammatical. If you make a statement, of course it's what you think; there is no need to add "I think" as a preface. Where you can, go back and cross out extra "just," "basically," "also," "but," etc.

Maybe the frequent use of e-mail, IMs, web forums exacerbate the tendency to write the same way you speak. If I'm writing quickly, I even throw in little comments like: "uh," "well," "um," "like." I do try to cut these out of work e-mails so my colleagues don't think I'm a valley girl.
posted by citron at 9:47 AM on December 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

Start using Twitter. It will force you to be concise.

And other things systems that force you to limit your words.

As many here know, I can be longwinded. So I enjoy updating my status on Facebook. It's a fun logic game for me. I usually start writing and get stymied, because I reach my character limit before finishing what I want to say. So then I have to rewrite. Sometimes I have to rewrite five times before I can make my point and make it fit.*

It would be great if there was a Firefox plugin that stopped you from entering more than, say, 200 words into a textfield. It should be overrideable, but -- if it existed -- users would be encouraged to rewrite more tersely rather them hit the GIVE ME MORE WORDS button. Maybe I'll create such a plugin. Hmm...

Something I do is to NEVER send out an email (or make a post of any type) without proofing it (reading it out loud). I'm a very busy person, yet I find that I can almost always spare a minute to read back what I've written before hitting SEND. People are getting more and more lax about proofing, but I'm getting stricter and stricter about it. It helps. And doing this in writing helps my general ability to communicate well, so I'm able to do it better in conversation, too.

* When my dad was in school, his English teacher made him read essays and rewrite them at half their original length. Then, he had to rewrite the rewrite at half ITS length. He had to keep doing this until he had distilled a ten-page essay into a paragraph. My dad said he hated this teacher for being so stern about word count, but that in the end, he learned more about writing in that class than any other. Every word he wrote had to be packed with meaning. My dad went on to write over twenty books. I think this is a great exercise. Consider using it as practice.
posted by grumblebee at 9:54 AM on December 5, 2008

Keep in mind the two ears, one mouth rule: listen twice as much as you speak. Also, enlist a trusted friend to nudge you or give you a look when you're rambling. My husband seems to have no concept of when the other person has stopped listening or caring, and a elbow in the ribs nudge encourages him to wrap it up.
posted by desjardins at 9:58 AM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: Some hints:

(1) Think before you speak. Take a few seconds to determine your key points (three or fewer in most cases) and state them as quickly as possible. Then stop. You can always clarify later. If need be, preface your statement by saying "I have two points. First....."

(2) In writing, use creative formatting when appropriate. Bold/italic emphasizes points. Bullet points or numbering arranges them. Headings signpost what you are going to say.

(3) Avoid repetition. Repeating a point does not necessarily emphasize it, and often introduces unnecessary verbiage. Say or write what you mean the first time.

(4) Be confident. Excess chatter is a sign that the speaker/writer is nervous, or is trying too hard to get their point across. You are calm, clear, and articulate. Your audience will understand you the first time.
posted by googly at 10:04 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rule of email: make ONE point per email.

Don't ever write: "we're having a meeting tomorrow. I need everyone to bring two pencils, a notepad and five dollars to go towards lunch. Also, please reply so that I know you got this message."

You can wail and moan about the fact that adults should be able to follow directions. Well, they can't. Live with it.

I guarantee you that if you send that email, people will show up for the meeting with the pencils and the five dollars but without the notepad. Or they'll remember everything except the pencils. Or they'll bring everything, but they won't email you back.

If I needed to get all those points across, here's what I'd do. (And before doing it, I'd think really hard about whether it would be a disaster if people didn't bring pencils or notepads. Maybe I can just provide them.)


PLEASE REPLY TO THIS EMAIL, LETTING ME KNOW YOU RECEIVED IT. There will be a meeting tomorrow at 3pm.


PLEASE REPLY TO THIS EMAIL, LETTING ME KNOW YOU RECEIVED IT. Bring the following to the meeting tomorrow:

1. two pencils.
2. a notepad.
3. five dollars for lunch.
posted by grumblebee at 10:04 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might consider why you want to say so much. Is it anxiety? For example, are you concerned that people won't understand you? Are you trying to fill space so people can't interrupt? Does being long-winded fill a hidden need for attention? If anxiety is at the core, focus on that.

A trick that helped me: Pause before speaking. Think, "What one thing is the most important?" Then say it. People won't notice the pause.

A quote from the Tao Te Ching: "More words count less. Hold fast to the center."
posted by PatoPata at 10:04 AM on December 5, 2008

"I made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter." -- Blaise Pascal

Ironically, expressing yourself in fewer words takes a lot more work than just saying what's on your mind at length. Often it means writing out everything and then going back and paring off the extraneous bits.

That's probably what you need to do. Write everything out, and before you hit the "send" button go back and do some vicious editing. Over time you'll start to recognize the parts that you're going to delete anyway as you're writing them.
posted by tkolar at 10:08 AM on December 5, 2008

The "Three C's": Clear, Concise, and Cogent. Review and preview your work/speech with these in mind.
posted by trip and a half at 10:21 AM on December 5, 2008

Re-read what you've written and trim the fat.

[I just did it with this post. I originally wrote "Go back and re-read what you've written and trim the fat.]
posted by Zambrano at 10:27 AM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: My 12-year old son:

"Can you make a long story short?"

At his school, they teach 'active listening.' By not formulating a response until they are done, you can lock in on the point they think is important, and speak to that. I find it helps me to 'put a filter on that brain-mouth thing.'

That's for face-to-face; for delayed communications, I re-read what I've written. If it's important the other person think well of me, I delay the re-read a day.

Except in this case, of course.
posted by dragonsi55 at 10:41 AM on December 5, 2008

Good advice here. One thing I do to calm myself down before launching into a rant/gush is to go MMMMM a couple times instead of pausing. It's easier than silence and can convey most of what you might say in asides and prefaces.

I had once creative writing professor who was a pure master of these non-committal but interested sounds. It made her seem devastatingly ingenious no matter what she said next.

It was like a mmmmmMMM!
or a MMHHHHmmmmmmm?
and there was a Mmm. Follow by a gaze into the middle distance, perhaps at the ghost of Frost who was probably gesticulating rudely at whoever made the last inane comment.

posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:23 AM on December 5, 2008

googly wrote "Think before you speak."

Word. 30 second pause before answering = you just saved 5 minutes of pointless talking while you figured out what it was you actually wanted to say.

I feel your pain, and I wish you luck in your search for brevity.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:28 AM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: Contessa--

Your problem is perhaps one of the most common and problematic in business, academia, politics and media/communications industries. Part of it stems from you being (a) very smart and able to retain great amounts of information, and (b) not having your speech governed by a brutal, extreme force that would do you bodily harm if you droned on (which would probably coerce you into being brief).

One of the most widely-known acronyms for solving this problem is K.I.S.S., as in "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Try to put that on a note card and place it anywhere visible.

If that isn't explicit enough for you, consider boiling down everything to 3 points. The Governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, is famous for being able to make arguments about any given subject in three exciting, concise points. For this reason, he is admired by pundits for this quirky, old school but effective method.

So, to follow my own advice:

(1) You are hardly alone in this problem.
(2) Remember KISS--Keep It Simple, Stupid
(3) Hit all the major notes, and make sure "major notes" = 3.

(Also--the "trim the fat" after writing an email advice is fabulous--I have to do it all the time.)
posted by AlbatrossJones at 11:43 AM on December 5, 2008

I just read Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Because he was once a newsroom copy editor (and wrote the book at that time), many of the entries pertain to clarifying prose and removing redundant verbiage. I frequently run on in writing, but since reading the book I notice--and remove--a lot more deadweight.

There are many other books that could perform the same function, but I found this one surprisingly effective. It's also an enjoyable read; which is, frankly, the sole reason I picked it up in the first place.

Bryson has just published another dictionary which sounds very similar in form and function.
posted by Herkimer at 11:59 AM on December 5, 2008

Mister_A: Isn't that a bit contradictory ;)?

I have the same problem, moreso with writing than speaking, and this helps a bit:

Proofreading always helps no matter what you're writing. Slow down, double-check, scratch out the unnecessary stuff from writing. KISS and DRY - don't repeat yourself (actually, that applies more to programming). As grumblebee and desjardins mentioned, use Twitter or similar apps to keep concise thoughts. Practice, practice, practice.

As for spoken communication, I don't have much advice for this, but I always thought of having my friends tell me to shut up. Perhaps get a friend to help you out by saying, "Hey man, I'm tired, I'm gonna bounce", or something to get you to stop.
posted by curagea at 12:44 PM on December 5, 2008

I have this problem too. What helps me is to remind myself that really, nobody cares what I have to say. I'm not that important. The world won't end if I leave out some details.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:06 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that I'm also long winded... But...

As Mark Twain once noted, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." While it is not good to bore, you also don't necessarily need to be self critical if you're still getting your point across clearly and accurately and you definitely don't want to edit to the point that you actually obscure the point you meant to make. If you have multiple points you want to get them across, get them across, and don't worry so much about what people think. For every person you annoy or bore, there will be two who just understand thats your personality and its neither good nor bad, and possibly even a few people who will appreciate your ability to be thorough and thoughtful.
posted by Kiablokirk at 1:46 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

How can I be less long-winded? [more inside]

Start with the point rather than building up to it, unless other information is essential in order to understand it. You can add more detail after, or preferably only when clarification is requested.
posted by Paragon at 3:28 PM on December 5, 2008

Response by poster: WOWEE! Thank you all. This advice will help me a lot.

Did I do it right?
posted by contessa at 4:05 PM on December 5, 2008

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