I think the question often hidden behind that one is: how long do I have to stand up there and suffer? Three minutes? Five minutes? Ten minutes?!
Here’s the thing: a bad speech is always too long, even if it lasts only a minute. That’s one minute of life stolen from the audience. They’ll never get it back, and they have every right to be upset. When you listen to a good speech, you often find yourself a little disappointed that it’s over. When it’s a bad speech, it can’t end soon enough.
So, perhaps a better question to ask is not how long should a speech be, but how good should a speech be?
Time Is Not On Your Side
The problem with thinking about the time is that it makes the experience all the more excruciating. You might prepare a speech that will last five minutes, and it does when you practice in front of the mirror. You speak slowly, pause often to let ideas sink in, and you figure in a minute or two for questions at the end of the speech. Then you get up there and race through it in about one minute and thirty seconds flat. No one ask a question, and you’re left up there with a nice bead of sweat trickling down your forehead.
The other problem is that you fill up the time, but to do so, you have to add a seemingly endless stream of facts that may or may not apply to the topic. Or worse, you actually ramble on for 15-20 minutes about whatever thoughts cross your mind.You walk away thinking that you did a great job because you were up there for so long.
Making people suffer for an extended period of time is dangerously close to cruel and unusual punishment.
Give Them Steak… and Only Steak
Imagine a good speech is like a good steak. You can practically hear the sizzle and it makes your mouth just water. Even if it’s a small cut (the fillet Mignon), you have no problem with it because it’s a delicious steak. A good speech is no different. The length (amount) of the speech is not the issue as long as it is good.
But, some people insist that the speech is too short and say, “I need to add some more crap to it to make it longer.” What happens if you add a piece of poop onto a steak? Yes, congratulations, you’ve turned that entire steak into crap. You’ve ruined what could have been a good steak. By adding this extra “crap” to your speech, you’ve ruined the whole thing. All this so you could add a few minutes to a speech. You haven’t added value; you’ve only wasted time.
The Value of Focus
Again, the biggest issue is with mindset. You are thinking about how much time you have to be up there. Instead, you need to think about how much time you need to provide some value to the audience. When you look at it this way, it makes time much more scarce and much more precious. You don’t have forever, so you need to make sure to make the most of the moment.
With this new mindset, you can now focus more on providing useful information or more powerful arguments to further your agenda (i.e. the purpose of your speech). If you want to convince us to vote for a particular candidate, what arguments or information will you need that will have the biggest potential impact upon us? If you want to teach us how to play guitar, what information will you need to get us playing by the end of the speech? Will you have enough time to accomplish this?
Notice that in these examples, you now can focus on only what’s important. For the persuasive speech designed to get us to vote for a candidate, we don’t need information regarding where she’s from or what hobbies she has. We need information that will help us decide that she’s the best qualified candidate. Anything else is a waste of time. Likewise, teaching us to play guitar is an extremely ambitious goal. In fact, you probably don’t have enough time to teach us in one speech. Or, you’ll have to choose one particular aspect (how to strum, play a G-chord, the basics of songwriting) so that you have a better chance of success.
Take More Time Before You Speak
A good speech is extremely focused, so the length of time is not a concern… during the speech. It’s the amount of time spent preparing the speech that should be in question. Notice above that you need to ask yourself if you have enough time to accomplish your speaking goal. This question applies equally to the time spent giving the speech and the time spent preparing the speech.
You will spend a lot more time preparing the speech than you will giving the speech. The more time you prepare (i.e. researching the topic, developing the arguments or providing the information, choosing your words, tweaking the delivery, etc.), the better the quality of the speech. You may even find that you will be looking for ways to shorten the speech rather than making it longer.
No one ever gave a good speech that was too long, and every bad speech given couldn’t end soon enough. If you don’t have anything useful to provide the audience, the best part of your speech will be when you break Rule #2 and say, “That’s it.” Every second will feel like an hour, for you and for the audience. But, if you take the time before the speech to consider the needs of the audience, then focus on the quality of the speech, you will never be up there too long. They might even ask you to cook up another steak.