I’ll Be Brief

Dubner’s post on perfectionism reminds me of a parallel phenomenon: People who say that they’re going to be brief often aren’t.

Indeed, the very time taken to say that you are going to be brief works to negate the claim. You couldn’t honestly begin by saying, “I’m only going to say the words that are absolutely necessary.”

Wouldn’t it better to forgo this temporal throat clearing entirely? Or if you have to say it, why not say it at the end: “I have a lot more to say, but I’m stopping now because I want to be brief.”

Of course, one of the strongest reasons for starting with this statement of intent is as a soft form of commitment. I’m giving the audience permission to cast aspersions toward me if I speak for too long.

As a co-founder of stickK.com (naked self-promotion), I’m a big fan of commitment devices. But “I’m going to be brief” is just cheap talk. The consequences of speaking too long are so wimpy that they don’t seem to constrain.

One of the problems is that people underestimate how long they speak.

It would be useful at Quaker meetings (or other places where people share the floor) to have speakers immediately, upon finishing an oration, estimate how long they spoke. I bet initially many people would report that they speak fewer minutes than they actually do.

Or (like asking people if they think they are better or worse than the average driver), you could ask them if they think they generally speak longer or shorter than the average meeting speaker. I’m guessing most people believe they are more concise than their average neighbor.

Better yet, groups might develop a norm to have speakers publicly estimate how many minutes they intend to speak before they begin: Instead of saying, “I’m going to be brief,” it would be a stronger commitment to say to the moderator, “Please interrupt me if I speak more than X minutes.”

This is a great example of what Thaler and Sunstein call libertarian paternalism in their great book, Nudge. The individual speakers retain the freedom to speak as long as they want, and this new verbal convention would give all of us a credible commitment device. The problem of speakers droning on at conferences and meetings isn’t one of the biggest problems in the world — but it is an example where cognitive error leads to a persistent dysfunction.

An analogous dysfunction concerns follow-up questions. Here’s a simple test:

How often do you find it useful to hear an initial questioner ask a “follow-up” question after hearing the initial response? For me, it’s less than 10 percent of the time. That’s the percentage of the time when I find that the follow-up is more useful than the new question that it squeezes out.

Follow ups aren’t usually helpful because the restated question normally doesn’t pull any more information out of the target. But people think that their follow-ups are more successful than the low-value follow-ups of their colleagues. Indeed, one of the reasons I rarely (but I probably underestimate my rate) follow-up is that I trust other people in the audience to pick up my point if it is really important (and if it was inadequately answered).

A simple solution to the follow-up problem is to push for a norm that only allows follow-ups if there are no new question waiting to be asked. If you’re not crowding out a new question, follow up to your heart’s content.

And here’s a final “why not” idea for better time-management at meetings. Let the last speaker on the panel (instead of the moderator) enforce the time allocation of the previous speakers. Too many moderators are wimps and let the initial speakers speak too long so that the last speaker is cheated. The last speaker has a lot better incentive to keep the train running on time.


Canada just lost the World Hockey Championship final to the Russians - on their own soil.

Within minutes at least two prominent TV commentators were heard saying (I am paraphrasing): "I am not a whining Canadian loser", and then proceeded to whine shamelessly blaming, of all things, the rules that were put into the international game at the NHL instigation.

Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose!

a student of Economics

Your policy on follow up questions may not work the way you intended.

The mere possibility of follow up questions may have incentive effects on the speaker.

Specifically, if the speaker knows that the questioner will persist until the speaker answers forthrightly, then the speaker may as well answer the question directly right off the back.

If the speaker knows there will be no follow up questions, then the speaker can be evasive with impunity.

Jim N

It reminds me of when people say "No offense..." and then proceed to say something offensive.


When I was a young staff officer in the Army, we were advised to be "Be Brief, Be Bright, Be Gone".


I'll leave a brief comment- the ubiquitous I'll be brief is a rhetorical device used to bond the speaker/listener in an implicit assumption that the speaker will present a biased point, using limited data to back the argument, rather than all the data to rule out counter arguments


A wise judge asked me once: "Can you tell me why I should rule for your client in fifty words or less?" I never went to court again without the answer to that question and usually began my argument with it.

Deb Morrissey

At my commencement, we had several speakers. It was a beastly hot day, and people were very obviously dying to get out of there. one of the later speakers was Roy Lichtenstein. His speech, in full:

"If brevity is the soul of wit, this is going to be hilarious. I would follow the advice of all the speakers before me. Good luck."

(OK, I may have a few words wrong, but that's the essence of the speech).

He got the most applause of anyone who spoke.


@Jim N 15: Or the classic "With all due respect..." which really means, "I don't respect you at all, you moron, and here's how things should be done..."


In the words of a famous tonsorial artist;
"Sit down - Shut up - I'm cutting your hair!"

W. Craig Trader

The phrase "we (I) (you) simply must -" designates some thing that need not be done. "That goes without saying" is a red warning. "Of course" means you had best check it yourself. These small-change clichés and others like them, when read correctly, are reliable channel markers.
--- Robert Heinlein

Nick M.

Fortunately we don't have this problem as much with blogs and their comments. If the first few sentences aren't interesting, you can just skip to the next.


"Brevity is the soul of wit."

Polonius, famously long-winded counselor in Hamlet


My band director in high school used to always say "Just one more time." He usually said this about 10 times per rehearsal.


I often wonder if people who say "I'm going to be honest with you," or "I'm not going to lie," are being truthful.

I have a lot more to say, but I'm going to stop now because I want to be brief.


I believe it's a Teddy Roosevelt quote, but when asked advice on speaking publicly, he said, "Be sincere, be prompt, and be seated."

W. Craig Trader

"Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." -- Blaise Pascal

Literally: I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.


Occasionally, I have my good buddy, the Hutch, proof read my text, as he had a way with words.

I asked him for a critique of a long winded text I had written. He looked at me straight in the eyes and said only this one word:


That was it. I instantly knew what he meant and he illustrated it by choosing the exact word in the perfect manner.


I saw this story and noticed how short it was, I was going to tell you you should have made it a long post, then I clicked read more. Bravo sir.


Someone was talking about a long-winded preacher: "Do you know what it means when he says, 'I'm closing now'?...ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!"

Rosemary Molloy

Read this years ago, but can't remember where: No speech should be longer than ten minutes, unless it's very important. Then it should be no longer than five minutes.