The Myth of the Memorable, Long Speech

It is a fairly well-known fact that TED Talk speakers are limited to 18 minutes. The primary reason for this is that the human brain has trouble focusing on a single topic for more than 18 minutes. The TED people will also tell you that 18 minutes is ideal because it makes for a good web video, and an 18-minute video is more likely to be shared on social media (increasing its chances of “going viral”).

However, one of the most critical reasons for limiting the time of a talk to 18 minutes is the fact that this forces the speaker to boil her talk down to its essence. When time limits like this are imposed on speakers (much like a conference organizer’s requirement to limit a presentation to 10 slides), there is no option other than judicious editing and practice – 45 minutes, on the other hand, leaves plenty of time for rambling and rabbit-trails.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Time Magazine, while hardly the final authority on rhetoric and communication, has compiled a list of the “Top 10 Greatest Speeches” of all time. Their list is fairly well balanced, and includes speeches with lines that are quoted and re-quoted. It speakers highlighted also make up a veritable “who’s who” of game changers – people who had a lasting and profound impact on the world as we know it today.

Time’s list includes:

  • Plato: Socrates’ Apology at 11,443 words, 88 minutes.
  • Patrick Henry: “Give me Liberty” 1,030 words. 8 minutes
  • Frederick Douglas: “Hypocrisy of American Slavery” 1824 words, 14 minutes.
  • Abraham Lincoln: Gettysburg Address 536 Words. 4 minutes.
  • Susan B. Anthony: “Women’s Rights to the Suffrage.” 536 Words. 4 minutes.
  • Winston Churchill: “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat.” 730 Words. 5.6 minutes.
  • John F. Kennedy: Inaugural Address. 1382 Words. 10.6 Minutes.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a Dream.” 1667 Words. 12.8 Minutes.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson: “The American Promise.” 3750 Words. 28.8 Minutes.
  • Ronald Reagan: Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate (“Tear Down that Wall”). 2751 Words. 21.2 Minutes.

The outlier here is Socrates’ Apology (c. 4th Century B.C.), clocking in at 88 minutes if we use an average of 130 words per minute. But Socrates’ speech is really Plato’s rendering of the speech, and is more literature than a rhetorical reality. So, for our purposes, we’ll only use the other 9 speeches.

From Patrick Henry to Ronald Reagan, these speeches are truly memorable. These are the examples of nearly perfect rhetoric that are used in teaching public speaking to millions of students across the globe. These are all very important people delivering very important speeches, and they collectively clock-in at 108 Minutes, or just 12 minutes on average. I have endured single speeches that equaled the total length of these nine combined! Do I remember anything from these talks? Beyond seeing the heads of “VIPs” bobbing in slumber in the front row, I don’t remember a thing.

If the most memorable and profound speeches of all time average 12 minutes, what makes us think that we can deliver a great, and memorable, speech, that goes much longer than this without weeks of preparation? There are surely tools and techniques that can be employed to keep the attention of a group for longer than 12 minutes, but a pure speech or talk (without audience give-and-take, call-and-response or transitional moments) that goes much more than 12 minutes will certainly be forgotten quickly, and then you’ve wasted your time and everyone else’s.

With this in mind, here’s a quick guide to help you decide how long your talk should be (it’s the 6/12/18 Rule).

6 Minutes: For those last minute invitations where there is something important to convey, but not a lot of time for preparation (these happen all too often), consider a six minute talk. Most people who have expertise in a domain can dig up something relevant or interesting that can be imparted in 6 minutes or less. A word of warning here, to make your six minute talk engaging, preparation is still critical! If you have been given 6 minutes of time to share what you feel is important to others, why would you not spend as much time as possible preparing?

12 Minutes: The 12 minute talk typically falls into the category of a board presentation or a regularly scheduled meeting/event where the audience will all be there because of a commonly held interest (which could be business, a hobby or religious affiliation). 12 minutes is about as much time as you will be able to fill (while maintaining interest) in these instances. Your preparation time here should be between five and fifteen hours. Again, if you have been given the time to address a group, then you should treat their time as valuable and prepare your remarks accordingly. Much longer than 12 minutes with less than 5-15 hours of preparation, and you almost certainly squander your time.

18 Minutes: When you are invited to speak with months (or years) of advanced planning, then 18 minutes is your target. These talks are the ones that require 40-120 (or more) hours of preparation in order to be effective. You’ll be practicing these talks in front of a mirror, on a stage, with notes and then without … whatever it takes to assure flawless execution. Take a tip from the folks at TED … if 18 minutes is all they are going to give Tony Robbins, then why should you take up more than that.

So, what if this formula doesn’t work with my schedule?

“If the most memorable and profound speeches of all time average 12 minutes, what makes us think that we can deliver a great, and memorable, speech that runs longer than 12 minutes … without weeks of preparation?”

If you must either 1) fill a longer period of time than your preparations allow or 2) you invite someone to speak in a setting where extended preparation isn’t viable, then there are a few options.

First, break it up into chunks. If you need to fill 30 minutes, and the amount of time allotted for preparation only adds up to a six minute talk, then have another three distinct “segments” lined up. Don’t be afraid to have your audience stand up and participate in some sort of “rebooting” exercise. Take 5 minutes to solicit questions on notecards, switch gears and deliver another 6 minutes on a related topic, and then answer the questions in closing. Get creative! But don’t give in to the temptation to fill up time when you are not adequately prepared.

Keep in mind that the masters knew how to keep the most important speeches in history to 12 minutes, and that believing you need more time that this (or that you can somehow deliver memorable content in speeches longer than this) is just delusional. Follow the lead of greats like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and deliver well prepared content in a manner that will keep your audience’s attention and assure that they remember what you had to say.

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