One on One: Keep it short

Published 9:53 pm Friday, May 13, 2022

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By D.G. Martin

The next few weeks I bet you will be attending a graduation ceremony – yours or a friend’s or a family member’s. In an earlier column I shared my thoughts about the speeches given at those times. With a few changes, here is what I wrote.

Can you remember anything said at your graduation? I mean anything other than your own name as you crossed the stage to get your diploma, shake the hand of a school official, flip your tassel and head back to your seat thinking, “It’s over. It’s over. I’m all done with this.”

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Come to think of it, how many speeches of any kind can you remember? If you are like me, not many. Can you even remember your minister’s sermon last Sunday? Can you remember the newspaper article or column that you read just before you got to this one?

Be honest. And know that recalling what we hear and read does not come easy for any of us.

It makes you wonder about those of us who like to give speeches and write newspaper columns. I guess we are arrogant enough to think we are different – and that people will remember what we say or write. In my mind I know that few will read these words, fewer still (if any at all) will remember, but my heart says, “Keep talking, keep writing, somebody will hear you say something that will be helpful to them.”

That must be what most graduation speakers think, too. And that is why there are so many long graduation speeches each spring. Fortunately, some speakers are different.

For instance. former Greensboro mayor and president of the Joseph Bryan Foundation, Jim Melvin. Inspired perhaps by a similar one given by Winston Churchill, he once gave this speech at a Greensboro College graduation event.


Never give up. Never, never, never give up.


That was it. The entire speech.

Too short?

Maybe, but everybody who heard it will remember it. Is the message too simple? Maybe, but it is a strong message. Better to be too short than too long.

There is a graduation speech that most people in my hometown remember – even though it was given 60 years ago. Dabney Stuart, 1960 Salutatorian at Davidson College, gave the following commencement address:


Much has been written,

And much said,

And those who wrote, or spoke,

Are dying, or dead.

Jesus said, before he died,

“Love one another.”

I have nothing significant to add.


Some in the crowd were stunned. They thought the short talk was disrespectful because it broke so radically from the norm. But today, looking back, that message seems right on point and memorable.

Short speeches are hard to write.

So are short columns. But short ones are better ones.

Someone once asked President Woodrow Wilson how long it took him to prepare an hour-long speech. He said that it took about five minutes to prepare. Then he was asked how long it takes to prepare a five-minute speech?

“That takes hours and hours,” the president said.

It does take longer to figure out how to say something important or complicated in a few words. But those of us who want people to remember what we say or write had better learn how to do it.

Wait. I know what you are thinking. “This guy has made his point. Why doesn’t he stop? Why doesn’t he follow his own advice and keep his column short?”

You’re right. I’m done.

D.G. Martin hosted “North Carolina Bookwatch,” for more than 20 years. To view prior programs, go to