Recently I was on tap to speak at a program that had been over-scheduled and as a result was running far behind schedule. As the clock ticked away and my time to speak approached, I could see that the host was getting anxious. As I got ready to go onstage, he nervously explained that my slot, which was originally scheduled for an hour, had been reduced to only thirty minutes. I made light of the situation and tried to reassure him by saying, “Don’t worry. I’ll give my pizza speech. If I don’t deliver in less than thirty minutes, you don’t have to pay me.” I made some adjustments on the fly, and everything turned out fine.
Many people become very protective of their time on the platform or their opportunity to speak in a meeting. They love being onstage, and as far as they’re concerned, the more time they have in front of other people, the better they like it. True, I admit that I enjoy communicating with people. It energizes me. And even when I am required to speak all day at a seminar, I walk away excited, not exhausted. However, at the same time, I’ve also discovered that when I speak for less time and do so more succinctly, people remember it better and longer. Isn’t that ironic?
“He can compress the most words in the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.” —ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Take a moment and think about all the teachers, speakers, preachers, politicians, and leaders you’ve listened to over the years. What percentage of the time have you come away from a session thinking, I sure wish he had spoken longer; that was just too short? I’d be willing to bet the percentage is very small. Unfortunately, more than 90 percent of the time, people wear out their welcome when they communicate. They’re like the politician about whom Abraham Lincoln said, “He can compress the most words in the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
Executive communication coach Anne Cooper Ready, in her book Off the Cuff, gives the following advice:
Begin, and end, on time. Or better yet, end a little early. Even if you are a paid speaker and want to impress the organizers so they know they’ve gotten their money’s worth, stop yourself with a particularly good answer a few minutes before you have to. In today’s over-booked society, nothing is more appreciated than the gift of a little found time.
According to Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, he believed that no one wants to sit in an audience in respectful silence for more than 20 minutes. Then, offer up to 20 minutes of Q&A and everyone gets to go home!
Nothing is worse than keeping an audience trapped into the night. Don’t fall in love with the sound of your own words. You will undo all the good you’ve done by dragging it out to get in just one more point. By finishing a bit early, you leave everything and everyone on a positive note, hopefully wanting more for the next time.
You can hardly go wrong by keeping things short when you communicate. But there are a million ways to go wrong by talking too long.
One of the greatest ovations I ever received came at the end of the shortest speech I’ve ever given. It was at a banquet following a charity golf event. It had been a very long day. We had all played in the tournament, the program was going way too long, and I could see that the golfers were tired and restless.
Finally after three hours of programming, the emcee shared with the audience that I would be coming up as the keynote speaker to talk to them on the subject of leadership. After what could only be described as polite applause, I stepped up to the podium and said, “It’s been a long day and a long program. Most of us are tired. My leadership talk is the following: Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
Then I left the podium and sat down.
For a moment there was a stunned silence. Then all of a sudden, the crowd erupted. With great appreciation, everybody rose to give me a standing ovation. I promise you, it is a speech they will never forget!
Now, I don’t recommend that you start giving only six-word speeches. (This is the only time in more than forty years of speaking that I did that.) Most of the time you are asked to speak, your host expects more of you. You are expected to add value to your audience, and rarely can you do that with so few words. But anytime you communicate—whether to one person or one hundred—it is always a good idea to try to keep it simple. Nobody gives you extra points for being obscure or difficult.
Winston Churchill was perhaps the greatest communicator of the twentieth century. He was an excellent leader, an inspiring communicator, and an accomplished writer, receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. He continually expressed the importance of keeping communication simple. He stated, “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope,” and “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want to take your communication to the next level and connect with people, don’t try to impress them with your intellect or overpower them with too much information. Give them clarity and simplicity. People will relate to you, you will connect, and they’ll want to invite you back to communicate with them again.
Maxwell, J. C. (2010). Everyone communicates, few connect: what the most effective people do differently. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.