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Unprompted: The Short Sell 

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There’s value in brevity. Many years ago Eric Hoffer, a California longshoreman with no formal education, was criticized for publishing “The True Believer,” an unusually short book. Hoffer bristled and argued that although his book was brief, it contained at least six original ideas and that was a great deal more than most lengthier works. Hoffer died years ago, but his thoughts endure. If you want to outlive yourself, wrap a good idea in a small package.

It’s the short, quotable phrases that make Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac memorable, not all the other stuff: “A bird in hand is worth two in a bush.” We may find a wealth of philosophy in brief words spoken by wise people: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Sometimes the words come from people not known for their wisdom, such as Rodney King’s “Can we all get along?”

Often the people who talk the most have the least to say. That’s not a great thought, but at least I said it briefly, and that improves its chances. Get to the point. That is easier said than done. I think it is perhaps because so many speakers have no point to get to. They simply enjoy hearing themselves.

Several months ago I noted a response from the Richmond Public School system to a question. I don’t remember the question. But the answer was:

In Richmond Public Schools, we utilize inclusive practices, a research-based approach, to support students with disabilities. This collaborative learning environment has at its foundation the general education curriculum, coupled with the accommodation and strategies that meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Say what?

Say what exactly this rather handsomely paid school employee is trying to say. Perhaps the message is that truth is most useful (at least in education circles) when hidden in obscure verbalism. If it sounds profound then it must be profound. It was probably part of a speech written for other educators who dream of learning some day to communicate without saying anything.

The most useless, and perhaps for that reason the most successful venue on social media is Twitter. While supplicants are restricted to 140 characters, that in itself is a challenge. Confine a good thought to 140 characters, or ramble on about nothing but do it briefly and still find an audience. I have nothing to say therefore I tweet. On Twitter there is something called Four Square where someone simply can tell us where they are. I’m at the mall. I just arrived at Starbucks. I tweet therefore I am, though there is little reason for either.

I can say this because during the last few years I have tweeted some of the most useless thoughts imaginable, and it seems the dumber they are, the more popular. “The placebos I ordered from the internet don’t seem to work.” That was a biggie on Twitter. “Never store your Preparation H too close to your super glue.” That one is just dumb enough to win a prize.

There were tweets in history, before Twitter. A bird in hand is worth nine in a bush, no … I got that wrong. I tend to forget. But some will endure. Speak softly and carry a big stick. The fundamental truth of that speaks for itself, though some don’t get it. That may be because so many of us speak loudly and remain stickless.

I have attended churches where the preacher is obviously under orders not to say anything. They say it well, but rarely venture beyond the confines of a nice thought with which no one could disagree. If they came down hard on some theological position it probably would be too much for some in the congregation. It also would probably be wrong and wrong is not what we want here.

So, one can ramble on and enjoy a rewarding career without saying much. That’s OK if one says it well. But the dork from Richmond schools who released that statement I mentioned earlier needs to get a clue. What bothers me is that person now, a few years later, has probably been promoted to a higher position because he or she is able to sound profound without being so.

Obfuscation is a wonderful way to survive. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.

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