However we describe contemporary life, speed and brevity are certainly two of its characteristics. Even our soundbites are getting snappier. According to Mark Smith, a political science professor at Cedarville University, radio or TV soundbites averaged 48 seconds in 1968. By 1998, that had shrunk to 8 seconds. No doubt it continues to shrink.

As The Independent (who should know) points out, the soundbite is now part of the landscape. If 8 seconds is too long for you, try the following clip where 40 inspirational messages get compacted into 2 minutes – an average of 3 seconds each.

Recognising the value of brevity in inspiring others isn’t as modern as it might appear. Back in the heyday of the Roman Empire, Cicero was overheard – presumably off camera – to remark that “Brevity is a great charm of eloquence” and “the best recommendation of speech, whether in a senator or an orator”. That times change is – concisely – proven by other soundbites from down the ages: while Shakespeare considered brevity to be “the soul of wit”, by Dorothy’s Parker era it had become “the soul of lingerie”.

But being brief is still a key skill in communicating: the brevity of the message can underline its importance and give it urgency. As communication overload threatens us all, keeping it short all increases your chances of getting your whole message across before your audience’s attention is called elsewhere.

But we should offer a few – just a few – words of caution. Soundbites can bite back. They may be phrases that will live on, but we suspect the speakers of “the pound in your pocket”, “back to basics” and “an end to boom and bust” would rather have remained silent. Speech writers and makers can overlook unintentional irony too: if Tony Blair’s “Now is not the time for sound-bites. I can feel the hand of history on my shoulder” was an attempt at modesty, it missed its target. And now, of course, we have websites to remind of us those sentences that have come to define careers.

And remember that life is not a bulleted list (a point made even by an advertising agency) and stray bullets can hit unsuspecting feet. Less isn’t always more, as two writers in history would agree:

In labouring to be concise, I become obscure.”
Horace [65 – 8 BC]

Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.”
Sydney Harris [1917 – 1986]

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