'Be Punctual at Both Ends'

DR. ROBERT B. WHYTE, pastor of venerable Old Stone Church on Cleveland’s Public Square, tells this story about his distinguished predecessor, Dr. Meldrum. At a meeting of the teachers of the Sunday School the late Sereno P. Fenn, who was its superintendent, exhorted the teachers to be on time and thus set. an example of punctuality to the members of their classes. He then turned for confirmation to Dr. Meldrum, saying, ‘Punctuality is a great virtue, isn’t it?’ ‘Indeed it is,’ was the reply; ‘but one should be punctual at both ends. You are very punctual in starting, but not at ending, and so you make teachers and scholars late for church. You lack terminal facilities. I maintain it is just as bad to be unpunctual at the end of a meeting as at the start.’

‘Be punctual at both ends’ might well be one of those maxims which school children are required to write over and over again in their copybooks. The faculty of condensation, of stating essential facts only and going light on the nonessentials, appears to be rather a gift of the gods than an acquired habit.

It would be too broad a generalization, however, to maintain that brevity of speech is invariably an asset. One meets able and successful men who have formed the habit of telling a story, or developing an idea, by beginning at the beginning and then carrying on with a wealth of detail, whereas others, of lesser mental stature, may possess the knack of presenting the same material in half as many words. Nevertheless, verbosity must be classified as a liability. So must the habit of telling funny stories to a busy man. Per contra, a few brief sentences that bring a smile to his face will make a grand approach.

In talking to intelligent and well-informed people it is almost impossible to condense too much, to be too brief. The wise man relies upon the intelligence and imagination of his hearers to supply most of the background. By asking a few questions they can quickly fill in the blanks; and answers to questions make a more definite impression than a connected recital. The elaborate approach has a way of building up sales resistance.

Really great minds waste few words. I once asked Thomas I. Parkinson, president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, if he had ever met a man with a better mind than John W. Davis. After a little reflection he said no, and went on to tell about calling in Mr. Davis as special counsel in an important litigation with a group of Russian citizens. Mr. Davis was so absorbed in other matters that he had had almost no time to prepare his case. When he arose to address the court Major Parkinson was apprehensive because of his barrister’s lack of preparation. He told me, however, that never in his life had he heard a complicated legal situation stated so effectively and with such simplicity, clarity, and economy of words.

The waste in industry and in all forms of human activity because of lack of punctuality at both ends is enormous. In the New York financial district waste of time by beating about the bush is regarded almost as a crime. Meetings of directors and committees are organized so that those present can reach decisions quickly and move on to their next appointments. At the Equitable Life we once set the hour for a finance committee meeting at 3.45 P.M. to accommodate Mr. T. DeWitt Cuyler of Philadelphia, who was accustomed to spend two days each week in New York, where his interests and responsibilities were many. He bustled in about three minutes late, looking a bit tired and haggard, and remarked: ‘Gentlemen, I may have made a record today. This is the eighteenth meeting that I have attended since I reached town this morning.’

George F. Baker, for many years head of the great First National Bank of New York, was reputed to be the most silent man on ‘the Street’ and to have made but one speech in all his life. He is credited with having stated the following credo: ‘Business men should reduce their talk at least two thirds. Everyone should reduce his talk. There is rarely ever a reason good enough for anyone to talk. Silence uses up much less energy. I don’t talk because silence is the secret of success.'

Unfortunately the processes of government in a democracy do not yield gracefully to Dr. Meldrum’s maxim, ‘Be punctual at both ends.’ Notoriously legislators are punctual at neither end. The extended debate which is the rule rather than the exception in legislative halls is based upon the theory that every legislator has the right to be heard. Of course the average Congressman is seldom heard by his fellows; more often than not he is addressing the folks back home rather than those within sound of his voice.

Freedom of speech is one of the foundation stones of our Republic, but it is a privilege that is terribly abused. Calvin Coolidge had this in mind when he left for posterity a priceless example of punctuality at both ends. When the Massachusetts Senate convened in 1915, with Lieutenant Governor Coolidge as its presiding officer, he opened the session with these forty-four immortal words: —

‘Honorable Senators: My sincerest thanks I offer you. Conserve the firm foundations of our institutions. Do your work with the spirit of a soldier in the public service. Be loyal to the Commonwealth, and to yourselves. And be brief; above all things, be brief.’