Centuries ago great speakers often spoke two hours and more. But today when sound bytes on television news are the norm and serious problems are solved in an hour on a television drama, audiences are most interested in speakers that get their points across in a short period of time. In a speech delivered to a Women in Communication audience, Patricia Ward Brash said, “Television has helped create an impatient society, where audiences expect us to make our point simply and quickly.”
Today great speakers are noted for their brevity. Billy Graham, in a recent city-wide campaign in Cincinnati, spoke about 20 minutes each night. Theodore Sorensen in his book, Kennedy, gave guidelines by which President Kennedy prepared speeches. No speech was more than 20-30 minutes. He wasted no words and his delivery wasted no time. He rarely used words he considered hackneyed or word fillers. As Purdue communications professor and researcher Josh Boyd wrote, “In physics, power is defined as work divided by time. In other words, more work done in less time produces more power. In the same way, a speaker’s message is most powerful when he [or she] can deliver a lot of good material in a short amount of time."
Here are guidelines to make brevity a key foundation in your next speech. First, keep your stories under two minutes in length. In preparing a story, continue to ask the question, “How can I say this in less time and in fewer words?” Script out your story and then seek to condense it. There is an adage in using humor: “The longer the story the funnier it had better be.” Connecting this principle to stories in general, we might say, “The longer the story, the more impact it had better have.” To make sure your stories stay under two minutes, include only information that answers the questions, “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” and “Why?” If it doesn’t answer one of these questions, leave it out. Make sure also that you have a sense of direction in the story. Each part of the story should move toward the conclusion in the mind of the listener. The listener should always feel you are going somewhere in developing your story.
Second, when possible, follow the proverb, “Less is better than more.” Never use three words when you can say it in two. Leave out clichés, filler words, and hackneyed words, such as "You know," "OK," and "All right." Leave out phrases such as “Let me be honest,” or blunt, or frank. Avoid “In other words…” or “To say it another way…” Speak in short sentences, short phrases, and short words. Word choice should be instantly clear to an audience. Make it a goal to make every word have impact in your speech.
Third, know the length of your speech by practicing it. Never be surprised by the length of your speech. Never say to an audience, “I’m running out of time, so I must hurry along.” You should know because of your preparation and practice of the speech. To go one step further, if you know the time limit on your speech is 20 minutes, stop a minute short; don’t go overtime. Audiences will appreciate your respect of their time and will think more highly of you as a speaker because of that. You should never be surprised by how long it takes you to deliver a speech
Fourth, learn to divide parts of your speech into time segments. Let’s use a 20-minute speech as an example. The introduction should be no longer than 2½ minutes. You can get the attention and preview your message easily in that length of time. Avoid opening with generalizations about the weather or the audience. Let the audience know up front that every word you speak counts. Spend the bulk of your time in the body of the speech. This is where you make your points and give support or evidence for each point. The final two minutes should be your summary and move to action statement. Some speakers have a hard time concluding. When you say you are going to conclude, do so. As one wise person stated, “Don’t dawdle at the finish line of the speech.”
One way to keep your speech brief is to have few points in the body of your speech—no more than three. With a maximum of three points, you will have the self-discipline to condense rather than amplify. In organizing your material, accept the fact you will always have more material than you can cover and that you will only include material that relates to one of the two or three points you plan to make. Trying to cover four to six points will almost invariably make you go overtime in your speech.
A key to success in speaking is not just having something worthwhile to say, but also saying it briefly. We need to follow the speaking axiom, “Have a powerful, captivating opening and a strong, memorable close, and put the two of them as close together as possible.”
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is a professor of speech communication at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He is also a trainer in communication who presents more than 70 seminars and workshops a year to corporations and associations. See additional articles and resources at http://www.sboyd.com. He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.