I once was a practicing, silent-meeting Quaker. I still try to be—Quakerly, that is, without meeting attendance.
My friends taught me the virtue of succinctness. They taught, “If you wish to speak at meeting, make it brief, fleeting, more like an image than a story or a lesson. 25 words is a nice goal.” I was going to say “…a nice target,” but that seemed too aggressive, not particularly Quakerly.
I once entered a meeting with an unsettling personal problem on my mind. Once the silent meeting began, I searched for the right words to share my problem in a manner respective of their norm for brevity. As Cornell University English professor William Strunk Jr. urged, “Omit needless words.” Pare it. Eliminate redundancy. Some twenty minutes into the meeting, this is what I shared: “I came today with a problem on my mind, but, trying to express it succinctly, I had a new insight and have solved my problem.” 25 words!
When being prepped for my appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in May 1997, the producer said, “Speak in sound bites—no extended monologues. This is the age of the sound bite. If you begin to ramble, she’ll cut you off.” Didn’t know Oprah and her ilk were Quakers!
The New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg summed it best in his “No” cartoon. Gazing at this picture that is worth a thousand words, you may take your pick—a simple “No” (being a good Quaker, perhaps) or the full chapter and verse.
Contrast Hemingway and Faulker: the master of the short sentence versus the master of the (near interminable) periodic sentence.
But brevity is not always apt, just as elaboration is not always welcome. The thoughtful communicator considers whether to risk failing to provide crucial information for the sake of terseness, or to risk obscuring the main point while enjoying one’s verbosity. Whether to err by undercommunicating or by overcommunicating.
Quakers should make good bloggers. The essence of the weB LOG is concision, like a one-minute sermon. Try to say too much in a blog, and you misuse the medium. Some blog posts would make a better book—book readers expect you to go on and on. Blog readers expect you to make your point and sign off. Thus I shall!