089: The Power of Brevity | with Bill Holston



Human Rights InitiativeSome of the most memorable speeches and documents have been much shorter than the norm. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 2 or 3 minutes long, and we remember it much better than the other speaker that day, Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address – “Ask not what your country can do for you” – was only 15 minutes long, one of the shortest up to that point in history. And TED Talks have taken the world by storm with a maximum length of 18 minutes.

Our guest today has discovered the power of brevity firsthand. For 30 years, he was a lawyer persuading judges and juries. Today he is executive director of a nonprofit, and as you can guess, a big part of his position involves spreading the word about his organization’s mission and asking people to donate money. He’s found that being short but memorable has made a real difference toward those goals.

Bill Holston is Executive Director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. In 2012, he left his law practice of 30 years to lead this non-profit organization that provides pro bono legal services for people who come to the United States seeking asylum from political or religious persecution, abusive relationships, or other reasons.

In this interview, Bill shares three experiences:

  • Persuading judges and juries in court.
  • Presenting at a PechaKucha event, which requires the speaker to follow a specific format: 20 images, each for 20 seconds (six minutes and 40 seconds in total). The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images. Don’t miss the video of Bill in his flashy jacket.
  • Making a fundraising appeal for his organization. Bill was invited to speak at a local church for no more than three minutes. The response was overwhelmingly positive, raising over $4,000 for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.

Jesse and Bill discuss three reasons brevity works:

  • Forces you (the speaker or writer) to be disciplined and clarify what your key point is. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” ~ Mark Twain
  • Prevents cognitive backlog, which is when too much information prevents the listener/reader from remembering or even paying attention. The longer the presentation, the more the listener has to organize, comprehend, and remember.
    Leaves listeners/readers with energy and brainpower to think about the information, share the ideas, and act on them.

Jesse and Bill also discuss four tips for being brief yet powerful:

  • Be very clear about your main point
  • Use an outline or message map
  • Follow the Rule of Three
  • Use stories or examples to make a concrete point faster than abstract explanations

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