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.

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