With Speeches, a Little Goes a Long Way

I know that I should be a better person than this. But my main reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union address this week was “Why did it have to be so freakin’ long?”

I don’t have the attention span for such things.

If I were President, I would propose that all speeches be limited to 15 minutes, with half of that time devoted to Q&A. Now that would be change we could believe in.

No one Wants to Hear a Long Speech

I’m not alone on this issue. Attention spans are short.  There was a study done of college students during 50-minute lectures.  Researchers found that the students’ highest level of attention was in the first five minutes of the lecture. After that, attention levels dropped continuously until the 17th minute and leveled off.

But we don’t need a study to know that no one wants to hear you speak for more than ten minutes.  You know why you don’t watch C-SPAN?  Because most of their programming is long speeches.

During our workshops, I often ask what would happen if the CEO or managing partner decreed that no presentations could last longer than 10 minutes.   Most agree that their lives would be improved.

Short Speeches Are Better Because They’re Focused

State of the Union addresses are what I call “Death Star” presentations. They’re huge and unwieldy, saying so many things and proposing so many ideas that we need Brian Williams or Katie Couric to translate afterwards.

I don’t care what you reputation as an orator is, if your speech needs someone to come on afterwards and identify the key points for the audience, then it’s lousy.

If all speeches were kept to 15 minutes with half the time reserved for Q&A, it would force us all to ask a simple question: what do I really want my audience to remember?

I was working with a health insurance executive recently on a presentation about the value of managed health care.  Her speech was a mess and way too long.  I asked, “If you could only get your listeners to remember three “bumper stickers” what would they be?”

She didn’t hesitate. “We save money.” “We improve health care quality” and “We allow coverage for a greater number of people.”  That focus allowed her to shorten her message and connect better with her listeners.

The Q&A Holds the Attention

Instead of speaking so long, leave lots of time for Q&A.  Listeners love Q&A sessions. It’s where the audience is most engaged and gets answers to their issues.  So why do we relegate questions to a couple of minutes at the end?

Jack Welch, the former GE CEO, is known as a great speaker. With small groups, he will often dispense with prepared remarks entirely and simply ask the audience, “What questions do you have?” 

I know that approach isn’t practical for all circumstances.  But Q&A should be a much more prominent part of all of our messages.

Next time you have to give a presentation, remember that no one has ever complained that a speech was too short.

Word Czars Ban “Czar” and other Jargon

The word Czars at Lake Superior State University have declared 15 bits of 2010 jargon “shovel ready”.

“The list this year is a ‘teachable moment’ conducted free of ‘tweets,'” said a Word Banishment spokesman who was “chillaxin'” over the holidays. “‘In these economic times’, purging our language of ‘toxic assets’ is a ‘stimulus’ effort that’s ‘too big to fail.'”

Former LSSU Public Relations Director Bill Rabe and friends created “word banishment” in 1975 at a New Year’s Eve party and released the first list on New Year’s Day. Since then, LSSU has received tens of thousands of nominations for the list, which includes words and phrases from marketing, media, education, technology and more.

The banned words are listed below. To read more, go to the LSSU website.

  • CZAR
  • APP
  • OBAMA-prefix or roots?

Public Speaking Tips from My Dog Balou


My dog Balou is a 60-pound, black-lab mix that we adopted at a PetSmart rescue day last year in Sandy Springs.   And if he could only talk and write on a flip chart, I’m sure he’d be a great public speaker. That’s because he understands how to connect with people better than most humans.

It’s about connection not perfection

First, Balou understands that you can do a lot wrong if you establish great rapport.

Balou makes lots of mistakes.  He eats the insoles out of shoes. He chewed the upholstery on our nice living room sofa. When he vomits on the kitchen floor, it’s truly disturbing.  And I won’t bother describing the foul and prodigious “gift” he left for us in the basement on Thanksgiving morning last year.  I guess we forgot to let him out the night before.

But we forgive Balou’s mistakes because we love him. When I’m working at the kitchen table, he sits at my feet. When my kids come home from school, he runs to the window and starts barking for joy.  And he does this hilarious thing with this ratty stuffed panda where . . .  Well you get the idea.

Like Balou, great public speakers understand that you can overcome mistakes with connection.  They’re not worried about forgetting a point, using an awkward phrase, or having their hair out of place. They don’t worry if the projector breaks.  They know that if they connect with the audience with energy, eye contact and stories, all will be forgiven.

My Dog Displays Lot of Passion

If Balou were a public speaker, his best trait would be his passion.   Balou has no trouble expressing his excitement. When I’m about to take him for a walk and he sees me grab his leash, he goes berserk. He leaps, twirls, and sneezes repeatedly (Sneezing is how Balou shows excitement).   That excitement is contagious and endearing.

Great speakers also show passion. I worked with an attorney that gave a presentation on how women attorneys can balance work and family.  As she spoke, her face lit up, her voice became intense, and her arms moved wildly.  Her passion was obvious and I was riveted.

Balou Makes Great Eye Contact

Balou knows that to connect with people, you need great eye contact.  If I say, “Hey Balou”, he looks up at me.   If he wants to go outside, he looks at me and barks.   When I come home from work, he shows he’s happy to see me by looking right at me and wagging his tail.

Similarly, great speakers understand that eye contact is critical. I worked with a project manager recently who had great energy but looked at his feet when he spoke.  We helped him by making him hold the eye contact for three to five seconds with individual listeners.

Balou just loves you

Finally, Balou understands that you win affection by showing affection.  We love Balou because he loves us and shows us in dozens of ways.

The same is true with great speakers. They show their affection for their audience by addressing their key concerns rather than giving a generic speech. They leave plenty of time for questions. They then answer those questions with a helpful, sincere tone.  Audiences return the love that you give.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Balou knows how to sell himself so well.  His livelihood depends on it.