Speak More Powerfully by Saying Less

If brevity is the soul of wit, taciturnity is the backbone of conversational power.

How many times have you found yourself in a situation in which, not being entirely confident about the point you are making, you speak too long in supporting it? Each added statement sinks you deeper in the quicksand of your uncertainty.

It is said that Louis XIV was a talkative young man. But when he became king, he reduced his formal conversation to the absolute minimum. In deciding matters of state, the story goes, his practice was to hear both sides of all issues without commenting – except to say, when all had been said, “I shall see.” His subsequent decision was made without further discussion. This practice freed him from debates and gave the few comments he did make great power. One of his most famous statements was the quintessence of terseness: “L’etat, c’est moi.” (“The state is me.”)

Andy Warhol employed this strategy too. The king of pop art tried to avoid discussions of his own art. When he did talk about it, he made short, cryptic comments. By letting reporters and art critics interpret his minimalist statements, Warhol felt he got a better result than he would have gotten by articulating them himself.

BB understands the protective power of brevity. Busy with many other things, he frequently responds to long email arguments with a single phrase (“Sounds good to me”) or simply an enigmatic “Hmmm.” While sometimes frustrating to those who want specific direction, it keeps BB out of a lot of pointless squabbles and encourages his employees to solve problems for themselves.

I’ve made my own effort at brevity by reinventing the way I write email messages. I chop everything down to seven or eight lines, at most. It’s amazing how seldom I have to exceed that limit.

In writing, and in speaking too, saying less often says more. It saves you time. It keeps you out of trouble. And it gives your words more force. Robert Greene (in his book 48 Laws of Power) put it this way: “Power is in many ways a game of appearances, and when you say less than necessary, you inevitably appear greater and more powerful than you are.”