Speeches: length matters!

On a cold wet day on March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison was sworn in as the 9th President of the United States. Being a military man, he wore neither an overcoat nor a hat. His inaugural speech was the longest in history, one hour and forty minutes. He developed pneumonia shortly after his inaugural speech, and died 31 days later. The longest inaugural speech, the shortest presidency! By contrast, Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural address was fifteen minutes and he wore an overcoat.

You may not catch pneumonia and die if you speak overtime, but it’s my experience that you will lose the respect of your audience. Whether you’re giving a business presentation, a political speech, or a toast to the bride and groom, know your time allotment when you’re preparing and speak slightly less than that.

I once attended a meeting in Kelowna specifically to hear one speaker. There were two speakers planned for the evening. The first speaker spoke well overtime, so much so, that there was no time for the second speaker – the one I had travelled to hear! Most annoying.

How do you ensure you won’t go overtime? J.A. Gamache, (www.jagamache.com) the third place winner of the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 2001, suggests calculating how many words you speak per minute. It’s pretty easy. Read a text out loud for one minute then count the number of words, or let Microsoft Word do it for you. Once you know how long you have to speak, it’s a simple matter to take the time you have to speak and calculate your maximum number of words.

Once you have your maximum number of words, practice with a stopwatch. Write out your speech, and read it through using the stopwatch. If you’re overtime, cut it back until you’re within the time frame. Humour in your speech (a good thing), will add time as you pause for audience laughter. When your timing is within the limits, write the key points of the speech on 4 x 6 cards, and keep practicing until you have the speech down pat.

You will be prepared, rehearsed, and on time. If you need to answer questions following your presentation, keep that in mind and cut your presentation back to allow for questions. When your time is up, even if there are more questions, let people know you will be available at the break or at the end of the meeting to answer further questions. Respect your audience, leave them wanting more, and you’ll be considered a great speaker. You’ll also live longer!

Mary Anthes is a retired business owner of a medical diagnostics company.  She has lived in the Okanagan since 1999.  A Toastmaster since 2001, she has achieved her Distinguished Toastmaster level. She is a writer and speaker. Mary can be reached at [email protected]

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