Dear Fellow Speakers,
It’s time for some tough love about how we spend our time on the stage. Too often we get so wrapped up in thinking we are saying the most important thing ever, that we abuse the time allotted and end up boring our audience; or worse, we speak for so long that they become agitated and even feel trapped! This goes back to the beginning, and how to write a speech.
Consider this: The worst speech I ever had the displeasure of being in the audience for was given by an experienced, vibrant, energetic speaker. She was a leader in a company I was doing marketing work for, and had important things to say. However, she wrapped up her key message in endless tangents, rallying cries, motivational quotes, and stories to make herself look like a hero. What’s more, she took the stage at around 5:00pm, blew right through her 45-minute window, and continued going until everyone in the audience was exhausted, hungry, and completely tuned out.
Let me be completely blunt: blowing past your speaking time, holding your audience hostage with your words, and ignoring why you’re on stage in the first place is a great way to make sure you fail as a speaker. As speakers, we must be respectful of our audience’s time by getting to the point, staying on the point, and leaving our audiences with a clear take-away. Otherwise there is no value to our speaking, and we are only doing it for ourselves.
The best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen to you is to write your speech early, practice often, and edit, edit, edit! As in, map out your speech’s key points, quotes, facts, etc. and then chop ruthlessly. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help identify what needs to go:
1. What’s the main idea I want my audience to walk away with?
What do you want your audience to do OR think OR feel at the end of your presentation? If this is more than 1-2 clear, declarative sentences, it needs work.
2. Does this fact, figure, story, quote etc. directly support my main idea?
Or am I trying to sound smarter/more interesting by adding it?
3. Am I using overly flowery words and descriptions to try and make my point?
Adjectives can be beautiful, fantastic, and wonderful. But they can also obscure your meaning and inflate your speech past the average audience’s ability to pay attention.
4. Am I off on an unrelated tangent?
This is the hardest one for most speakers, because it’s so very easy to go off on an unrelated tangent (i.e. “Squirrel!”) in the form of a story or interesting fact. Ask yourself questions #1 and #2, and if it’s not a clear easy-to-access connection, chop it. As in, if you have to extensively explain why it’s relevant to your main point, it’s not.
I’ll end with this completely related story about how to write a speech: The man who spoke before Abraham Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address spoke for well over two hours. Off the top of your head, can you name him and describe what he spoke about? Neither can anyone else. But that day Lincoln gave one of the most important speeches in history, clocking in at just under three minutes.
An earlier version of this post appears on Speaking Practically.