Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Friday, September 26, 2014day link 

 Brevity
picture At some point, a few years ago, I became good at saying wise stuff very concisely.

It was sort of accidental. The challenge I set myself was to say more things that were quotable. It is a Toastmasters principle that one ought to always have some material ready, in case somebody unexpectedly asks you to get up and speak to a crowd. Some stories, some jokes, some unusual facts, some quotes. One could simply collect some of those when one runs into them, put them on a list, and glance at them once in a while so that one is likely to remember them.

And I thought -- quotes -- I can't remember anything I've said that was quotable. Once in a while other people would quote me on something I had written years ago, and I usually was impressed. But I couldn't myself think of anything. So I decided to write it down when I said something that would make a good quote.

Incidentally, Twitter or Facebook are ideal for brief statements. On Twitter you simply can't write more than 140 characters, so if one has any hope of writing something memorable and meaningful, it would have to be within that limit.

I was quickly surprised to find that it was quite easy for me to say something quotable. I had just meant to try to catch it when I said something clever, but by doing that, I started mainly writing things that were clever and quotable. That maybe shouldn't be surprising, one typically gets what one puts one's attention on. Anyway, the result became that I more or less copied everything I said on Twitter or Facebook to my quote list right away. So, now, several years later there are hundreds and hundreds of entries on it.

It is worth noting that even though my initial motivation was somewhat vain and self-serving, to collect clever things I've said in order to sound smart and quotable later, it was something else I managed to tap into.

See, I can't really come up with something clever on command. If I try to deliberately construct a wise and profound statement, I generally can't. I'd sweat over it and just come up with something mediocre and unoriginal. Because it is not really about constructing something clever at all. It is more about discovering something.

The way it works for me is that I'm busy with something else and suddenly, bing, an insight pops into my head, fully formed. That has certainly happened for a long time. What was new now was that words came along with it. I could just write those words down, a sentence or two, and post them on Twitter or whatever. And I would probably pop right back to what I was doing before, having just spent a minute or so noting down or posting that thought.

The cool thing is that most of those little packets of wisdom could be unpacked to something much larger if necessary. If somebody has a question about it, I'd have a lot to say about it, and I'd have examples, etc. Or any of them could be a whole discussion, or a lecture, or a book, if necessary, and if I had time to write it. Or they could just stay brief. What is very useful about the brief form is that it is enough to remind me of exactly what it is about. So, even years later, I could still unpack it into a speech or an explanation. There'd be nothing to forget, because the initial quote says it all, even if it maybe isn't clear to most other people. And it almost always has a built-in integrity and coherence. Nobody ever catches me in having gotten it wrong. I don't particularly mean that to brag. I'm after all only partially responsible. Those thoughts pop into my head from I don't know where. I didn't try to construct them, they don't represent something I painstakingly have figured out. I can explain them after the fact, though.

The downside of saying many little things like that is that I might not get around to the bigger and longer and more detailed explanations and articles. And even though I myself was quite happy with my mini version, and a bunch of people clicked Like on it, I'm quite aware that probably most people didn't quite get what I meant. They might have entirely misunderstood it, or have at least filled a few of their own fixed ideas into it. The advantage of longer form writing, like blog posts, is that the subject matter can be unfolded and illustrated in a variety of different ways, and it is more likely that the reader gets it and that it becomes real and useful to them.

So, I will give myself the challenge of also collecting longer treatments of simple ideas I care about.
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