Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Value Brevity

If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour two days; if an hour, I am ready now
Woodrow Wilson

One of the comments I will occasionally receive is that I should preach longer sermons – I know that’s hard for some people to believe but it’s true.  There used to be a saying around churches that “sermonettes make Christianettes.”  The implication was the longer and meatier the message the better and more effective it will be.

I am convinced that more message fail because of too much information, not too little.  Last summer I attended the church of one of my favorite authors; I was looking forward to hearing him speak in person.  I had been warned that he delivers lengthy messages and was somewhat prepared for what became a 45-minute sermon.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the response of the congregation.  Even as I took detailed notes (he’s a brilliant theologian) I watched as couples around me (especially those that seemed to be there as visitors at the invitations of friends) squirmed in their seats and as one worshiper even fell sound asleep).  I left even more convinced of the  value of brevity.

The value of brevity is not necessarily a modern phenomena driven by our increasingly shrinking attention spans.  A short list of effective message throughout history would have to include Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Just 278 words delivered in just over two minutes, it has become known as one of the greatest and most memorable messages of all time.

Lincoln was not the keynote speaker that day in Gettysburg.  That honor was given to Edward Everett who spoke first and gave a eulogy that lasted two hours.  I can’t think of a single word I’ve ever been asked to memorize from Everett’s message – though for generations we’ve learned to recite “Four score and seven years ago…

Everett later wrote to Lincoln:  "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

It is quite possible to give a lousy two-minute speech.  Brevity does not insure effectiveness and as Woodrow Wilson suggests requires even greater preparation.  But if we want our listeners to remember what we are saying we have to value brevity.