As a tax adviser, I have been writing letters and reports from my late twenties. Although tax advisers must be conscious of the length of the document being created, there is almost never a hard limit.
In 1997 I began writing articles for publication for “The Treasurer” which is the house magazine of the Association of Corporate Treasurers. At first it was initially extremely hard complying with their word limits, which were strict because the article has to fit within the space on the magazine page. Obviously, over time, practice made this easier.
Writing a concise piece that conveys your messages is much harder than writing a long piece.
I first came across this concept as a teenager, I think when reading a Sherlock Holmes story, although I cannot give a citation. Searching the internet finds many attributions for the quote, but the earliest appears to be the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1657 in his “Lettres Provinciales” as detailed on Quora:
Mes Révérends Pères, mes Lettres n'avaient pas accoutumé de se suivre de si près, ni d'être si étendues. Le peu de temps que j'ai eu a été cause de l'un et de l'autre. Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte. — Lettre XVI
Translation: “My dear Reverend Fathers, my letters did not use to follow each other so closely, nor did they use to be so extended. The little time that I have had has been the cause of both these things. I only made this letter longer because I had not the leisure to make it shorter.” — 16th letter
Writing concisely is not just a question of how you select your words and sentences.
If the constraints are severe, you need to be ruthless at deciding what are your key messages. However, if you can get that right, it will make your communications much more effective.
As a teenager, I watched a TV history programme which simply consisted of an academic talking, in this case about the battle of Gettysburg. At the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg cemetery, the featured orator was Edward Everett. He spoke for two hours, with a 13,607-word speech. The TV historian pointed out that apart from historians, nobody remembers his name, or a word that he said.
Then Abraham Lincoln spoke for two minutes, giving the Gettysburg Address, the most famous speech in American history. Those 278 words were not spoken impromptu. Lincoln had worked hard on that two-minute speech over several days. See the Gettysburg Address Wikipedia article .
I have never forgotten the TV historian’s contrasting of these two speeches.
The FFEU (Foundation for Ethnic Understanding) based in New York City recently ran a series of daily Ramadan videos where prominent Muslims around the world sent a short Ramadan message.
I was delighted to be asked to contribute one but dismayed by the brief that I was given. The invitation letter is reproduced below:
Mr. Mohammed Amin, MBE FRSA
Co-chair, The Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester
Dear Mr. Amin,
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the global address for Muslim-Jewish relations, is launching a dynamic and exciting new social media series for Ramadan, “30 Faces of Islam for the 30 Days of Ramadan,” and we would be honored to have you participate and share your Ramadan greetings to our global audience.
The “30 Faces of Islam for the 30 Days of Ramadan” series will highlight the profound impact that Muslim leaders have made globally as well as educate the non-Muslim community about Ramadan. Your participation in this distinguished series will make an indelible impact on viewers and will help us strengthen relations between Muslims and non- Muslims around the world.
We ask that you please share a maximum of 1-minute video with your message this Ramadan season to men and women from all walks of life. Please confirm your participation by responding to this e-mail. Upon confirmation, Marie Banzon-Prince, the Foundation’s Administrator, will be in touch with you regarding the project’s simple logistics.
Together, let us share our common faith and our common fate during this holy Ramadan season.
Very truly yours,
Rabbi Marc Schneier
How does one compose a message that helps to “educate the non-Muslim community about Ramadan” and “strengthen relations between Muslims and non- Muslims around the world” while fitting that message within 60-seconds? How much can you actually say in 60 seconds?
Speaking quickly to squeeze in more words would obviously be nonsensical. Accordingly, I needed to be completely ruthless at focusing on exactly what I wanted to say.
The final recording that I submitted can be watched below, followed by the written text. I was still five seconds over the limit but decided that both I and FFEU could live with that!
The full series of 30 Ramadan talks can be watched on the FFEU Facebook "Watch" page. Scroll down to "All videos" and look for videos whose title begins with "30 Days" in the time period of Ramadan 2020 (24 April to 23 May.)
I assume that every speaker was given the same brief of providing a talk lasting 60 seconds. You will see how most speakers appear to have ignored that constraint.
In passing, the image quality of the video shows what can be achieved with a smartphone today, in this case an iPhone-X.
Reading my script below, you should be able to identify the key messages I wanted to convey, about Ramadan and the origin of the Quran, the importance of education, and the support and solidarity that Muslims in Britain receive from non-Muslims.
As-salam-u-alaikum, shalom, and peace be with you.
Ramadan is holy for Muslims because it’s the month in which God began to reveal the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad via the Archangel Gabriel.
The very first words revealed were:
“Read! In the name of your Lord”
From the very beginning, God commands us to learn.
While fasting in Ramadan Muslims are reminded that they are not alone.
Last Friday, I attended an online iftar where we had messages from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and from the Chief Rabbi, amongst others.
At an online iftar the following day, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey, shared with us his experience of fasting in solidarity with Muslims.
So from me, Ramadan Mubarak to Muslims all around the world, and also to our very many friends.