How Long is a Speech?
Speeches that are measured by the hour will die with the hour.
— Thomas Jefferson
How long is a speech? Let’s be clearer: How long is a good speech? This is one of the first questions a speaker asks me. My glib reply always is, “Your speech should be long enough to get your point across and not one word longer.” It’s true.
How many times have you heard a speaker go on terribly long-winded? He’ll tell self-aggrandizing stories that begin with, “I was telling a client just before…” and end with that client taking his brilliant advice (or failing miserably when he ignores said advice).
Don’t be that guy (hire this guy).
Then there is his opposite, the guy who is all facts with no room to breathe.
You know the one. He’s got slide after slide packed with charts and numbers. He’s the one standing behind the podium visibly clicking to the next slide convinced you are paying attention. Yawn!
He’s not the one to emulate either. That guy should be publishing in professional research journals.
The problem with each is they leave their audience unchanged.
First of all, if you have an event planner, the question is answered. If they say 26 minutes, they don’t mean, “Shoot for 26 minutes.” They mean, “Speak for 26 minutes. Don’t speak 25 or 27 minutes. 26.” This makes it easy. No matter what you would have done if you were king, the declaration has been made. You aren’t the king.
Sometimes, though, the organizer will give you a ballpark length.
Certain contexts have expected norms. Wedding speeches and eulogies are usually in the 3-7:00 window. Conference breakouts are around 30:00 with Q/A and maybe some hands-on exercises. Fundraising keynotes range from 15-45:00. Commencement addresses might land between 10-20:00. Always ask, just to be sure.
Often, a client will come to me and say they have between 15-30 minutes to talk. Let’s narrow that down. On my end, that’s a big difference. A 15-minute speech is wholly different than a 30-minute one. The structure, tempo, and kinds of storytelling are different.
If it looks like your material will go long, review your speech to see if you have more than one topic. Stick to one theme. Use fewer quotes. Drop an anecdote. Prune aggressively.
If you are short on content, you might need to change your theme. Is your topic broad enough to fill your time slot? Avoid filler, but ask yourself if you thoroughly covered your points. And, consider simply saying what you came to say and stopping. Let your audience fill up with meat, not bread.
Ask your organizer. Be upfront if you find your time too long or constraining. Work out a compromise. Honor that time.
Remember your goal. You want to influence your audience. You want them to do something. Words which help them do that thing are what you want. Use those words.
Summing It Up: Say it completely and then stop.