I'm an avid member of a local Toastmasters club. I love public speaking, both as a speaker, and as an audience member. But one of the many great things my years in Toastmasters has taught me is the value of keeping speeches as short as possible.
There a few situations in which long talks are necessary.
University professors have to cover a subject thoroughly, and the students have textbooks and other supplementary materials at their disposal so that they are not required to retain everything said in the lecture.
Participants at a workshop or continuing education session expect to get a lot of information for the fee they have paid.
But most speeches should be much shorter than the hour or more that lectures and workshops often require. In my own experience watching the audiences when I've listened to a variety of speakers, the average speaker can hold an audience's attention for about five minutes, and a spectacular speaker for 10-15 minutes. After that, eyes wander, a few people begin whispered conversations to their neighbors, and a few other people begin taking restroom breaks.
Consequently, if I'm asked to speak, and I'm given a half hour speaking slot, I prepare a seven or eight minute speech. I then take questions from the audience. If too few people ask questions, I first attempt to engage the audience in direct conversation by asking them a few questions I've prepared in advance. I then give a very short wrap up, also prepared in advance, and leave the podium early if necessary.
I have been thinking about the length of speeches lately for several reasons. Roy Peter Clark, journalist and teacher, recently wrote an article on the journalism website Poynter entitled 3 big lies that public speakers tell and why journalists should care.
The three lies he addresses are
- "You can interrupt me at any time"
- "I want this to be a conversation"
- "There will be plenty of time at the end for questions"
It's a good article, and if you are interested in techniques of public speaking and engaging an audience, you should read it.
A second reason I've been focused on brevity in speaking is that I am an advocate of brevity in writing. Speaking is different than writing in a number of different ways, but one thing they share is a need to hold the attention of the reader or audience for the entire length of the work, and to convey the maximum amount of information and impact using the fewest number of words.
As an exercise I often go back over blog posts I wrote years ago, and do a rewrite that shortens the work without losing the information or meaning of the original. In nearly all cases the edited version is better than the original. Speaking is similar. Speaking for the sake of filling the time slot is always a bad idea.
Decide what information you want to give the audience, and what you want the emotional impact to be, and write a speech that accomplishes your goals in the shortest amount of time.
Your audiences will thank you.