I know that I should be a better person than this. But my main reaction to President Obamaâ€™s State of the Union address this week was â€œWhy did it have to be so freakinâ€™ long?â€
I donâ€™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
Iâ€™m not alone on this issue. Attention spans are short.Â There was a study done of college students during 50-minute lectures.Â Researchers found that the studentsâ€™ 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 donâ€™t need a study to know that no one wants to hear you speak for more than ten minutes.Â You know why you donâ€™t watch C-SPAN?Â 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.Â Â Most agree that their lives would be improved.
Short Speeches Are Better Because Theyâ€™re Focused
State of the Union addresses are what I call â€œDeath Starâ€ presentations. Theyâ€™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 donâ€™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 itâ€™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.Â Her speech was a mess and way too long.Â I asked, â€œIf you could only get your listeners to remember three â€œbumper stickersâ€ what would they be?â€
She didnâ€™t hesitate. â€œWe save money.â€ â€œWe improve health care qualityâ€ and â€œWe allow coverage for a greater number of people.â€Â 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.Â Listeners love Q&A sessions. Itâ€™s where the audience is most engaged and gets answers to their issues.Â 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, â€œWhat questions do you have?â€Â
I know that approach isnâ€™t practical for all circumstances. Â 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.