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Jul 09

Keep your Talk under 20 Minutes

Posted by: Steve Marr

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We all have sat in situations where a speaker would have practically put us to sleep except for the fact that we had four or five cups of coffee. Even then our minds wander. I've been teaching, giving seminars and involved in speaking engagements long enough to know how easy it is to speak on and on.  After all, there's always more I can share. However the reality is that I lose my audience if I speak too long, and so do most speakers.

Occasionally I watch TED talks. The goal of each one is to inspire, inform and educate.  Most of the time, they hit the mark. One of the keys to the success of the TED format is that they limit the talks to 18 minutes. The TED organization did the research and found that the longest you can hold somebody's attention is 10 to 18 minutes. The organization learned it doesn't matter how effective or how dynamic or how exciting a speaker is, 18 minutes is still the maximum amount of time listeners are able to fully focus on a talk. When a speaker goes longer, the audience reaches a point of diminishing returns were the longer a speaker talks; the less listeners grasp.

In some ways I don't like this information. I'd like to stand at a podium and go on for hours presenting my “brilliant ideas.” Of course this is my ego speaking and has nothing to do with reality.

A speaker has to be focused when there is limited time. It is also important to be very clear what you want to communicate to the audience and what action you want them to take as a result. This requires a lot of discipline; it is not easy.

Twitter is an example of limited communication. Twitter allows the user very few characters to communicate a message and that means that every letter matters. 

For a time, I did a one minute syndicated radio feature which required me to write an opening, use a scripture, provide a concept and close all in 59 seconds. Initially I found this format difficult, but in time I learned to adapt. When every word and every fraction of a second matters, I can waste no words.

As I think about this concept I remember that even from well-known speeches; I remember only sound bites, not the bulk of the talk. Forcing ourselves to limit how long we speak forces us to be focused and ensure that every word, paragraph, and idea is clear and concise.  Again, this is not easy. If we are tempted to think that we cannot communicate everything in a short period of time, remember that Dr. Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech lasted 17 minutes.

King Solomon was a master of concise communication. Every verse uses limited words to make a profound statement.  He found a way to communicate clearly and concisely with limited words. He also wrote, “…too many words make you a fool.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3, NLT)

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