“Brevity is the soul of wit,” Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. He gave those words to Polonius, a counselor to the king and a “tedious old fool.” But Polonius was smart on this one: brief is better. “Always leave ‘em wanting more,” might be the modern entertainment industry’s adaptation of the same idea. Here’s another snappy quote: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” That’s from the Bible. If Shakespeare, Hollywood, and Jesus Christ can agree, it must be true. So keep it short.
The tricky part is that brevity is most important when it feels appropriate to be long-winded, like your average wedding speech. For the guy holding the mic, it feels like a really big deal — his one and only chance to provide exhaustive evidence that “the man seated to my left is such a great friend, who has always been there for me, just the same way he’ll always be there for you, Jenny,” and so on. But it’s the 20 minutes of “so on” that compels the audience to stop considering the gravity of the moment and to start fiddling with their cellphones.
Because honestly, let me tell you how many weddings I’ve been to where I left thinking, “Man, I just wish that best man didn’t cut his speech short.” Fucking zero, that’s how many. I don’t think I’m alone on this one, nor am I more jaded than the average guy. I just don’t think most people’s brains, at any given moment, are prepared to digest a big speech. It’s exhausting. Love is beautiful (see #30), as is friendship, and I’m sure we all have a genuinely great story to tell into a microphone to a group of strangers without the slightest sense of urgency. But it’s my opinion that the best way to leave an audience breathless and impressed is to come out swinging, make a big impression by saying the few things that really capture the moment, and getting off the stage while there’s still ice in everyone’s drink. That’s actually really hard, even harder than preparing a long speech, but more likely to be remembered.
If you really insist on getting noticed, and this applies to much more than just wedding oration, give a short speech with a big finish and then drop the mic. The A/V people will be very upset about this, and if you don’t have enough charm you might look like an asshole… but odds are it’ll be more memorable than whatever long-winded tale of childhood misadventure you’ve got warming up on the back burner.
(For what it’s worth, this rule is a major reason you are reading 30×30 on a website, not a book. How could I start a 300 page book with a chapter on brevity? Please rest assured I could go on and on, but I’m trying to keep a lid on it.)
© 2012, Ian Mathias