Sunday, January 20, 2008

Speech Wisdom, Part I

We bet you think Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address.

Sure, Lincoln did speak at Gettysburg, but it was a certain Edward Everett who gave the formal “oration” — the principal address — to memorialize that battleground. The selection of Everett for that role made a lot of sense. He was an ordained minister and a past president of Harvard. But equally important to the people who planned the events of that day in 1863, Everett was widely regarded as the nation’s greatest orator. The invitation to Lincoln — to follow Everett with a few “dedicatory remarks” — was sent out almost as an afterthought.

So why doesn't Everett’s Gettysburg Address ring through the ages? Could it be because the speech went on for two hours?

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The first step in preparing a memorable speech has nothing to do with thinking great thoughts. Nothing to do with putting pen to paper. The first step has got to do with getting the allotted time within reasonable bounds. The first step is to avoid committing oneself to a speech of excessive duration. Too often that is exactly what happens.

Let’s consider the typical run-up to many speaking events for business executives:

Weeks or months before the speech date, the CEO is in a routine staff meeting. Several matters are discussed before the subject of the upcoming speech is raised. Finally the speaking engagement comes up and gets kicked around, and at some point the CEO asks, “By the way, how long do they want me to talk?” Somebody looks at some notes and comes up with the answer: an hour. Sixty minutes.

Bad answer.

What the staffer should have said was: “They want an hour but we’ll get them down to a more reasonable time.” The reason that that should be the stock answer is because many if not most speaking opportunities for executives actually do come attached to time slots of one hour. Or, what’s hardly any better, 45 minutes.

What are the planners thinking when they come up with those time slots?

“They,” typically, are the venue producer and staff — the venue being, say, an industry conference or trade show. Their job is to plan, develop, and stage an attractive, varied, and complex program of meetings and presentations, each tailored to the interests of certain audiences. A large void of time must be filled — one day, two days, three days, or more. In the beginning the void is a formidable blank. So the venue planner is thinking, “If I can fill out the program in blocks of 30 minutes, that’s good. Forty-five minutes, better. Whole hours — perfect.”

Signing up

Then there’s the other side of the equation. That’s you, the would-be speaker, or perhaps your communications staff. Along comes a message informing you of a speaking opportunity, a great chance to tell your organization’s story. Quickly you sign up before the slot goes to a competitor.

So the commitment is there. You have made your bed. But whether you really have to sleep in it is another matter. This is where a little negotiating can go a long way. And most times, you do have leverage.

But the CEO can be his or her own worst enemy. He’s tough and indefatigable. You’ve seen him slog through grueling talk-fests before, and he comes through fine. You know if you express concern over a 60-minute script he might say, perhaps with a touch of bravado, “I can do that.” Where are you then? Should you push it?

Yes you should. The last thing a speech should be is a speaker’s personal test of stamina. The only important factor is the audience. Rub them the wrong way and you might as well not have bothered.

The central problem is this: a large span of time practically coerces the speaker into talking about everything. And when you try to say too many things, the main point, if there is one, is lost. Voltaire put it this way: “The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.”

Rule of thumb

In the matter of that classic speech occasion -- the Sunday sermon -- one senior prelate of a major Protestant denomination had a simple instruction for every new class of seminarians. “If you don’t strike oil in twenty minutes,” he said, “stop boring.” In the same vein, Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) said that “no sinner was ever saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.”

As the highest-paid public speaker if his time, Twain knew what he was talking about. But the 20-minute rule of thumb is only a rule of thumb. Different venues and different circumstances must have their due. Audiences differ. Topics differ. Goals differ. That said, the 20-minute limit is about right for most executive presentations. It means the speaker doesn’t exhaust himself (or herself) talking, and the audience members don’t start tuning out long before he’s done.

Two sheets

Getting back to Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assigned role, as we said, was to follow Everett with a few “dedicatory remarks.” And that’s what he did. He pulled two sheets of paper from his pocket and read off 272 words. Next day, Edward Everett wrote the following to Lincoln: "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

So let’s say you’ve persuaded the CEO that he probably doesn’t want to go longer than 20 minutes. Now what?

Now you have a heart-to-heart talk with the venue managers. Don’t be shy. You’re in a position of strength. The last thing a venue manager wants to do is rustle up another speaker after he’s had one in hand. If he seems to recoil from the notion of “only” 20 minutes, it usually works to offer a post-speech Q&A, bringing the presentation to, say, a more ample-sounding 30 minutes. Once you get into that neighborhood, event organizers are usually glad to adjust.

And you — no longer obliged to run out the clock — can now concentrate on the real goal: a compelling speech.


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