"Keep it short." Some maxims are trite because they are true and therefore get repeated. This one shows up a lot: "Brevity is the soul of wit," says Polonius in Hamlet. Leonardo da Vinci: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works, creator of the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, coined "KISS," which helped defense industry people, my people, who think in acronyms, to remember to keep it, variously, "short," "simple," "stupid."
My favorite is from Lotus founder Colin Chapman who exhorted his designers to "Simplify, and add lightness." Adding horsepower improves speed in the straightaway, he reasoned, but shedding bulk adds nimbleness for every situation.
People prefer brevity for many reasons. One is demographic. Advancing age confirms the old saw that the mind can absorb only so much as the bladder can endure. Replace "bladder" with "butt" and this truism applies broadly.
Another reason is hard-wired into the opposite anatomical extreme. The human brain talks at 100 to 140 words per minute but listens at 600 to 700. When the buffer empties the brain grows frustrated. Listening to speech is inherently boring.
Packing more into fewer words is smart, but takes investment.
Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Younger, Cato, Cicero, Bill Clinton, and Benjamin Franklin are all credited with the quote, "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." Any of those could have been so, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton. "Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte," wrote French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in 1657, "I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter."
But an investment in “short” pays big dividends. Here’s an example:
We had reached the hard part in our campaign to sell 64 F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters to the Finnish Air Force. Throughout the Cold War the government had balanced their buys between the Soviet bloc and the West to protect Finland’s neutrality, but in a private meeting held the previous year the Finnish government's top leaders had decided to buy their new fighters from the West. We got the word on a note scribbled secretly on a cocktail napkin by our Helsinki representative, and we knew this development would make our more capable and costly airplane affordable. We were in the fight.
We flew to Helsinki that winter to pick up the request for proposal and I will not soon forget getting naked in the sauna with the defense procurement chief and his senior (male!) colleagues. But that's another story...
The Finnish military is a serious and professional force toughened by hostile meteorological and political conditions and very present memory of the brutal Winter War of 1939-40. Our fighter’s far superior war-fighting power mattered, and by spring 1991 the Finnish Air Force was going for the Hornet. (We thought, incidentally, that we were losing. The Finns had intentionally convinced us we were behind as they reassured trailing competitors that they were actually winning. They correctly believed this strategy would extract the best deal from us.)
So we were very excited to receive an urgent call from Finnish Air Force HQ inviting us to deliver a presentation at the Paris Air Show to the statuesque and courageous Finnish Defense Minister Elizabeth Rehn, her defense procurement chief, the head of industrial policy and the Air Force commander, outlining why we thought they should spend $4B on 64 F/A-18 Hornets. This would be a tough decision for them, the largest amount of money their government had ever spent on anything.
Our chart generating apparatus went to DEFCON ONE. This would be the mother of all military “briefings” and emphatically not brief. To his everlasting credit, when our Finnish representative discovered what was happening he forcefully intervened. Minister Rehn wanted answers to exactly six tough questions, and he demanded the barest of presentations lasting no more than thirty minutes. Any longer, he said, and we would lose their attention and the program.
So we invested six weeks in what became six charts for a 20-minute talk leaving 10 minutes for discussion, for a total value of about $130M per minute.