The Benefits of Brevity in the Workplace

Given that we check our smartphones 150 times per day and send and receive 125 emails every day, it’s no surprise that a recent study found that more than half of professionals feel overwhelmed by information overload at work. Office workers are interrupted roughly every three minutes by phone calls, emails, meetings, and coworkers. Our attention spans are shrinking, too - on average, we stop reading an email after 30 seconds, and listening to a presentation after 1 minute. We spend about 15 seconds listening to a co-worker before we shift our attention elsewhere. Whilst brevity might have been a nicety 10 years ago, it’s essential in today’s workplace.

When talking in a presentation, meeting, or just among coworkers, it’s probably time to stop if you sense that you’re getting on a roll. Being long-winded can make you seem underprepared, cause you to over-explain rather than listen, and lead to your message being ignored. In a job interview, you could lead the hiring manager to believe that you’re not capable of being concise or picking up on conversational cues, which certainly doesn’t look favourable. At the very least, your co-workers and managers will find you annoying.

Making an effort to keep your communications brief can improve your relationships with your colleagues by showing you respect their time. Brevity can also help your colleagues understand you better - concise thoughts are easier for us to parse, which is why, for example, we write math with numbers and symbols rather than in English. It’s no easy task to cut length without compromising quality, especially since we’re taught from an early age to focus on page counts rather than ideas. This has led to a perceived correlation between length and quality of content, though in reality the correlation is between length and unnecessary content.

If you have trouble with communicating concisely, Joseph McCormack, author of BRIEF: Making a Bigger Impact by Saying Less suggests mindmapping to organize your ideas. His method uses the acronym BRIEF to organize ideas around a headline. If, for example, you had a meeting with your CEO to provide an update on a project, the headline might be “the project is behind schedule.” The boxes surrounding the headline would be:

B (Background): Provide a quick context—what prompted the update?

R (Reason): Explain why you’re speaking now—why should they pay attention?

I (Information): Provide two to three key pieces of information you want to share.

E (End): Decide on what note you want to leave the conversation. In this case, you may want to end by telling the CEO what you will do to get the project back on track.

F (Follow-up): Consider the questions you anticipate the CEO will ask you when you finish speaking and prepare answers in advance.

You can also cut your word count by doing away with the “wind-up” - for example, instead of starting an email with “I just wanted to let you know that we may need to meet on Tuesday…”, state your purpose directly and upfront: “I might need 15 minutes of your time on Tuesday. Are you free at 11am?” You should also assume an intelligent reader and avoid stating common sense and corner cases. Finally, rather than persuading your audience, tell a story. People love a concise narrative that explains the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, and why). And, whenever possible, use visuals to communicate ideas, since the human brain has an uncanny ability to pick out visual patterns.

Mark Twain famously said, “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare,” confirming that brevity takes much preparation and careful thought. Though it may seem like a lot of work, your colleagues will certainly thank you.