by Bill DunneNOTE: This is the first in a series of featured posts from Gotham team members and friends offering tips and thoughts on the craft of writing. We hope you will find them enlightening and useful.
Bet you thought Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address.
Of course, Lincoln did speak at the great Civil War battleground. But it was someone else entirely, a certain Edward Everett, who gave the formal “oration”, that is, the principal address. Lincoln’s role, which the event organizers had conceived almost as an afterthought, was simply to follow Everett with a few “dedicatory remarks”.
The selection of Everett to give the main address made sense. He was an ordained minister, so who better to memorialize the dead. He was also a past president of Harvard. But of at least equal importance for that somber day in 1863, Everett was regarded as one of the nation’s great orators.
So why doesn’t Everett’s Gettysburg Address ring through the ages? Could it be because the speech dragged on for two hours?
Here’s the point: The first step in preparing a successful speech should not involve putting pen to paper or thinking great thoughts. The first step should be to bring the allotted speaking time within bounds, to avoid death by droning.
Too often that is not what happens. 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?”
“An hour”, someone replies, looking at some notes. “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 should be the answer is because many, if not most, speaking opportunities for executives actually do come attached to time slots of one hour. Or, what’s not much better, 45 minutes.
What are the planners of these speaking events thinking?
They’re thinking they have a job to do, and “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. The void of time that must be filled is formidable — two days, three days, or more. So the venue planner is thinking, “If I can fill out the program in nice big round blocks of time, that’s good”.
Then there’s the other side of the equation. That’s you, the would-be speaker, or 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.
Okay, so you’ve hastily made your bed. But does that mean you really have to sleep in it? This is where a little negotiating can go a long way. And most times, you do have leverage.
Beware, though. The CEO can sometimes 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.”
What then? Should you push it? Damn right. 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 forces 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, Mark Twain said that “no sinner was ever saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon”.
Twain, the nation’s best-paid public speaker in an age of prized oratory, knew what he was talking about. That said, 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. Twain himself routinely spoke for an hour or more. But then he was a practiced entertainer and well able to pull it off. For most executive presentations, the 20-minute limit is about right. It means the speaker doesn’t exhaust himself (or herself) talking, and the audience members aren’t tuning him out long before he’s done.
Now back to Gettysburg. Lincoln’s assigned role, as we said, was to follow Everett with a few “dedicatory remarks”. That 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? Well, now you have a heart-to-heart talk with the venue managers.
Be bold. 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 in that neighborhood, event organizers are usually glad to adjust.
And you — freed from clock slavery — can now concentrate on the real goal: a winning speech.
© Copyright 2008 by Bill Dunne