Published in The Financial Times
Last week I wrote about how I would rather eat my own arms and legs than speak in public and received two sorts of response: e-mails from people who would, similarly, rather eat (their own) limbs than make a speech; and e-mails from people who had recently endured a speech so tedious that they wanted to eat (their own) limbs out of sheer frustration.
Among the latter was a message from a conference organiser saying that if there was one thing he had learnt from decades of listening to executives prattle on, oblivious to the fidgeting, visible boredom and, in some cases, loud snoring of their audience, it was this: never speak in public for longer than it takes you to make love.
The maxim evoked some rather unpleasant images. But I found myself nodding nevertheless. I have lost count of the number of times I have been so bored during an over-long speech that I have resorted to reading the washing instructions inside my blazer to pass the time. But I would go much further and say that, nowadays, everything is too long.
I have no scientific proof to offer in support of this argument. But the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. The big blockbuster of the moment, for instance, is King Kong. It is three hours and seven minutes long. The big children’s book of the moment is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It is 607 pages long. Among the presents I received for Christmas were Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – 20 hours of game play and I haven’t got past the first few levels yet – a 16-track album by Ryan Adams – still haven’t got to the end of it – and Vikram Seth’s503-page Two Lives, its title presumably an allusion to the time it takes to finish.
My complaint, it transpires, is not a new one. The 19th century aphorist Sir Arthur Helps once remarked: “Almost all human affairs are tedious. Everything is too long. Visits, dinners, concerts, plays, speeches, pleadings, essays, sermons, are too long.” The strange thing is that the statement should still be valid in the 21st century, when conventional wisdom has it that everything is getting shorter. It is often said that MTV reduced the collective attention span of Generation X to three minutes and that technology is further intensifying our appetite for the bite-size. Yet we are having to sit through movies longer than the Korean war and plough through novels that could double as footstools.
Various factors seem to be driving the trend. Many blockbusters and books are too long because they are created by people so successful that no one dares edit them. And advances in technology (bigger hard-drives, DVDs and so on) mean that it is easier for things such as computer games to be long. However, I suspect there is something else encouraging prolixity: laziness. In short, people can’t be bothered with the effort of editing.
Admittedly, this concern with brevity is something of a personal fetish. Being force-fed three-hour-long Bollywood movies as a child, struggling to read everything I was meant to for my English literature degree and becoming a journalist, a job where you always have one eye on the word count, I have developed a phobia of length. But it seems that in a world where length is the easy option, where, with a click, you can copy thousands of words into a document from the internet, conciseness is to be encouraged.
And nowhere is brevity more important than in relation to language – both spoken and written. William Strunk Jr put it best in The Elements of Style (1918): “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Of course, even this passage could be edited, with no reduction in fluency. And I would concede that when it comes to artistic matters such as “good writing”, length is not always bad. Henry James could have written 500 pages about the washing instructions inside his blazer and it would have been a good read. Similarly, even at three hours 47 minutes, Lawrence of Arabia is hardly boring – I’d rather sit through it twice than endure the 97 minutes of Herbie: Fully Loaded another time.
But for every long artistic work that is brilliant, I could show you 50 that would have been better shorter. Moreover, when it comes to non-artistic matters – “human affairs” such as business – over-length is nearly always bad.
Unfortunately, long-windedness in business is rampant. I have yet to attend a two-day conference that couldn’t have been better conducted across a single day, or a day-long training course where the content couldn’t have been disseminated over a single morning session. And nobody has ever said of any presentation: it was great but too short.
Similarly, meetings, career discussions, away days, annual reports, office parties, mission statements, conference calls, memos, business books, e-mails and the legal disclaimers at the end of e-mails are all too long. And then there are business columns, the prolixity of which I can, in this case at least, do something about, by ending four lines before I am meant to.
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