I don’t find it useful to beat a dead horse but this horse is still snorting. In my last column I talked about the art of brief speech, spoken or written. Several readers connected with that. So let me elaborate on how not to elaborate.
The thought came to me from a Facebook friend, who recalled from his study of language at the University of Richmond that Mark Twain is credited with having said, “I am sorry for the long letter but I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
I looked it up and found that while Mark Twain may have said it, so did a lot of other people, or at least words to that effect. It’s an idea that’s worth several authors. The obvious point is that it’s much more difficult to be concise than to ramble. How often have you heard someone say, “Let me make myself clear.” OK, go ahead. If you made yourself clear in the first place that wouldn’t be necessary.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a classic example of how not to speak like Bill Clinton. It’s 272 words, about one-third the length of this essay and the most famous speech ever given by an American president. It will live in infamy, to borrow from another president who was friendly with words.
There are many phrases that are so good they live alone. Perhaps the most enduring models of brevity are portions of the Bible. Not all of it, mind you, just portions. The Sermon on the Mount, arguably the most famous speech in history, is listed at 2,000 words, but who knows for certain, given the way it came to us. We assume somebody was on the mountain that day taking notes. A short speech of enormous historic impact.
Other Bible quotes secured places in history perhaps because they were written well or perhaps because they speak concisely of enduring truth, or both. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Talk about diplomacy. Or how about this: Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone. That one hangs with us because it’s so missed in our everyday lives.
There are better ways of saying most things. You can argue that trying to make pets of wild animals is a bad idea or you can say: If you raise an alligator from the day it is hatched with love and kindness, when it grows up … it will eat you.
A dog howling at the moon has no noticeable effect on the moon. That’s a better way of saying there’s no use in complaining about something you can’t do anything about. But wait — there’s more. I haven’t reached my word limit.
Attractive young women sometimes marry rich old men. Rarely do they marry poor old men. Ha.
It does little good to water dead flowers. This could apply to the proposed ballpark in the Bottom that will never be built.
If gold is such a good investment why don’t those guys selling it on television just keep it.
What would country music be without a constant whining about what isn’t. I want to live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory. Faron Young made that a hit in 1955. The dream has endured.
And for conservationists who lament the decline in any particular species, we might say, if all wildlife had survived there would be dinosaurs in my yard instead of deer.
The list goes on but the point is clear, at least to me. There are ways to say important things that will be more effective if said … effectively.
I don’t think Lincoln had a speech writer, but John Kennedy probably did when he looked around the room at a White House dinner honoring various skilled people and said the last time so much talent was gathered in this room at once was when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
There are ways to twist a sentence so that it grabs us and hangs on. Good storytellers have a way of doing that, but it helps to have a good story. And when you have both — well, that may be your finest hour.
Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.