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Less is more (how your mobile’s stop watch will improve your speaking)

by Shari Graydon

blurred-woman-speaking
My cabinet minister client was a speechwriter’s dream: She had deep knowledge of, inspirational passion for, and a lifetime of stories relevant to her portfolio. She also had a great sense of humour, and a strong and unique voice, which I could hear in my head as I wrote.

Because she was a minister, and her conference pronouncements might be construed as government policy, ministry staff occasionally had transcripts made of her remarks. On one occasion, I was sent such a transcript. I read it eagerly, so gratified to see that she had delivered every one of the 2,000 words I’d written – and (gulp) another 2,000 besides.

Her extemporaneous digressions were relevant and often entertaining, but knowing what havoc they would have wreaked not only on her schedule, but also on the conference program itself, made me cringe.

Here’s what happens when speakers are given 10 minutes, and they take 20: they are effectively saying either…

  1. “I’m such an amateur that I don’t know that a conference organizer asking me to speak for 10 minutes expects me to actually time my remarks so as not to inconvenience everyone else”; OR

  2. “I’m so self-important that I think my insights deserve more attention than those of the other speakers.”

Neither option is likely to endear a presenter to the people who spent months planning the event, recruiting talent, and developing a program that would maximize stimulation and engagement while still permitting attendees time to network and pee.

I appreciate that most offenders would excuse their failure to keep to their time window by saying they were too busy to rehearse. But that’s not an option.

Because when someone gives us a microphone and a captive audience, we need to treat that as the privilege it is.

Besides, every time-stealing performance is also likely to be met with misery by those presenters unlucky enough to share the offender’s time slot. Because they know that every extra minute stolen by the undisciplined speaker means either less time for them, or no time for questions. This is particularly infuriating for speakers who did, actually rehearse their remarks with a timer, paring back their insights to the requested length so as not to infringe on others’ time.

Moreover, some audience members may be more interested in the remarks of the speakers scheduled to follow the self-important rambler. They, too, will be conscious of, and fretting over, the diminishing window of time available for the person they’re most interested in hearing.

I have lamented microphone hogs both as an audience member and as a speaker. And I feel for the conveners, especially if they were explicit about the timing requirements and context. I know it’s awkward as a moderator to have to sit in the front row and hold up a sign saying “Time’s up”. And if the speaker is reading from a text, never raising her head to look out at the audience, it’s useless.

The bottom line is, when someone gives you a platform at an event they’ve invested time in planning, which includes other thought leaders on a packed program, this is what respectful professionalism looks like:

  1. You think about what you can say that will be of most interest to the audience given the context for and focus of the event. If you’re drafting notes, you aim for no more than 115 words per minute of allotted time.

  2. Whether or not you’ve scripted your remarks, you rehearse them OUT LOUD, with the stopwatch function on your smart phone. And you DON’T read them at the kind of breakneck pace that prevents you from breathing.

  3. You then revise as needed.

Let me be clear on the second point: nobody wants to listen to your pinched and breathless voice as you stress it with the desperate task of delivering 30 minutes of material in 15. This act will not inspire an audience with confidence in your authority. And it will not support them in reflecting on, or remembering, what you said.

If you have something worth saying, you need to

slow

down.

Research has found that audiences remember less what you said

than what they thought about what you said.

So you need to give them time to process,

to consider,

to make sense of your words…

You need to vary your pace, and punctuate your key points

with…

…pauses.

The pauses will take up a bit of time. You’ll have to sacrifice some of your precious words to accommodate them. But watch even just a few excerpts from a speech by Michelle Obama for a little inspiration. Even though she’s not offering complex analysis, the pauses she uses allow her audience some time to process and consider the significance of her words. To think about related consequences. To make personal connections.

Every speaker benefits from that kind of engagement.

Less really IS more: more engaging, more powerful, more memorable.