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Brevity

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Polonius from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" reminds us that "brevity is the soul of wit," and then goes on to give us one of the most rambling speeches in literature. But indeed, the art of pithiness is quite valuable, b-to-b marketers, and it's an art form that has been long neglected.

In the early days of communication, our hunter-gatherer forefathers kept it extremely brief: "Me kill buffalo." Even if they did misuse an object pronoun, they managed quite well without extraneous adjectives and adverbs.

It wasn't long, though, before the art of oratory brought forth some mighty loquacious speakers. In the classical period, Cicero, Plautus and Nero were all considered champions.

In more recent times, great dictators of the world have spewed forth unrestricted:

  • Former Cuban President and Prime Minister Fidel Castro spoke for more than seven hours once, and has the record for the U.N. General Assembly with a four-and-a-half-hour speech on imperialism.
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez spoke for eight hours straight on television.
Some of our presidents have been known for their effusive style.
  • Bill Clinton was greatly criticized for his 48-minute nomination speech back in 1988.
  • William Henry Harrison gave the longest and deadliest two-hour-inaugural address on a cold rainy day in 1841. A month later he died of pneumonia.
  • And of course there's Abraham Lincoln, who spoke for hours at the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, but also penned the succinct Gettysburg Address.

I can't help but wonder if technology isn't at the root of this garrulous trend. After all, Chávez could not have given an eight-hour television speech had there been no television. The stapler wasn't invented until three years after the Gettysburg Address; would Lincoln have attached another page if he'd had one? (Random note: Remarkably, paper clips weren't invented until the 1890s even though the technology has existed since the Bronze Age.)

Today, of course, we have cyberspace, which allows b-to-b marketers unfettered access to what can only be described as digital landfill. We can now use empty adjectives and adverbs such as "special" and "really" to a really, Really, REALLY ridiculous degree. And we can tell our customers EVERYTHING we know in a really long special message.

Don't get me wrong, it's grueling to write succinct copy. Have you heard the adage, "If I'd had more time, I'd have written a shorter letter"? I've seen that quote attributed to Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Ben Franklin, and Blaise Pascal. Pascal's Lettres provinciales (Provincial letters) were written between 1656 and 1657, so he's probably the originator (my opinion).

My point is that the concept of "less is more" has been around for centuries. We should heed the warning. Just as our brethren in sales must endeavor to deliver an "elevator pitch," we marketers should be respectful of our prospects' time, and put forth the effort to craft full but suitably laconic messages throughout our marketing. Once we've captured readers' attention, we can direct them to an equally concise location "for more information." PS: This entire post has been brought to you in a mere 500 words (or so).

Ginger Shimp is marketing director for SAP America (www.sap.com). The views and opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of SAP. She can be reached at gingershimp@gmail.com.

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