(Originally Published in Inc)
For most business speakers the necessary stage time, structure, and conscious editing in order to make maximum impact just aren’t there–most people don’t have to speak often enough to get it. Conversely, the speakers who deliver their talk most, tend to be the best and most polished. They know where the laugh lines are, they know what phrasing works best, and they know their timing. Just like standup comedians.
Standup comedy, at its basic principles, is a combination of material (what you say) and delivery (how you say it). It is no different than typical speeches or presentations. TV slots for new comedians tend to be under five minutes, which forces them to continuously refine and refine and refine again in order to get maximum impact from each word.
Most presentations are glorified snooze-fests & long keynotes are becoming a thing of the past.
Conference organizers still tend to book speakers in 40- 60 minute time slots but who, these days, has an hour to focus on one person? Some of the best speeches in history have clocked in at less than 20 minutes. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was 272 words and lasted two minutes. Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech was 688 words. The most powerful emotional expression two humans can say to each other is just three words: “I,” “love,” and “cake.”
Most people switch off at around the ten-minute mark. As referenced in Brain Rules, studies by noted educator Wilbert McKeachie demonstrate that “typically, attention increases from the beginning of the lecture to ten minutes into the lecture and decreases after that point.” This is why TED has shortened its earlier 18-minute format. They figured out that brevity is levity. Many conference and event producers have yet to get on board. Most speakers can’t hold the attention of an audience for 40-60 minutes. It’s something even the best stand up comedians battle with. Yet business speakers seldom ask for a shorter slot. They should.
How you can avoid sloppy seconds:
Don’t wing it: Most comedians will invest an estimated 22 hours of work for every minute of a one-hour special show (normally produced yearly). It’s estimated that new comedians put together between five and eight new minutes of really strong material in their first year. Looking effortless requires effort. Winging it is for birds. (Unless you want the performance of a blind, one winged, homing pigeon)
Refine, refine, refine: Practice your speaking within shorter and shorter timeframes and keep cutting your presentation, speech, or story until someone complains that it’s too short. Recognize that modern day audiences have ever-decreasing attention spans. Keynotes are becoming TED talks. Short, funny and information packed. Being concise forces you to only include your best points, jokes and stories.
Where there is no time limit, impose one on yourself: Will people complain that your talk should have been longer? Unlikely, and if they do, leaving them wanting more is never a bad thing.
Only give your best: Comedians know their strongest material and know the best nights are the ones when they do just that: Give only their best. “How long can you do?” is a question often asked between early stage comedians. They know all too well their answer, and if you ask them to exceed what they know is really good, with a big audience, they will politely decline. They prefer to give their strongest performance and leave the audience wanting more. Business speakers should too. If you’re not confident in your ability to speak for 40 minutes plus, ask for less. How about I speak for 20 minutes and allocate 20 additional minutes for q&a? Conference organizers, often more focused on filling time slots then making you look good, will seldom rebuff this.
As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is levity”. If you haven’t got your best words ready, just like comedians would do, don’t do the time. Every sloppy second counts against you.