You may sometimes wish you could die rather than give a speech, and public speaking did literally kill one of our presidents. William Henry Harrison served the shortest term as President—from March 4 to April 4, 1841—because of the length of his inauguration speech. March 4, the day he delivered the speech, was bitterly cold and he chose not to wear a top coat or hat. He spoke nearly two hours—8,444 words—which was long enough to contract pneumonia. He was dead thirty days later. We might say he talked himself to death! A lesson we learn is the importance of considering how long we speak.
We need to keep our speech concise. If you can tell a story in two minutes, don’t take four. Be stingy with your use of words. Get to your point, whether you are having a conversation with your boss or delivering a speech to two hundred people. If you develop a reputation for taking too long to say anything, people will not listen as carefully to what you say. If you take two minutes to introduce a point in a conversation, people quickly learn not to pay much attention in the early part of your message.
Don’t take unfair advantage of people’s time when speaking. People in the United States are very sensitive to time. If you are delivering a presentation, know in advance how much time you have for your speech. If the person in charge will not give you a specific limit on time, ask how long the speaker took at the last meeting. If the limit is 20 minutes, then speak l8 minutes, not 23. Don’t include material in your speech which is not relevant to your topic. You are the speaker because you can provide new information to the group. If what you are saying does not relate to that expertise, then leave it out. Don’t give an autobiography in your speech. Only share things about yourself that relate to your topic.
If you have control over the time of day you speak, consider when the message will be accepted best and listeners will be most alert. In most situations, people are sharpest in the morning, so choose morning times instead of afternoon times for presentations if possible. Before and after lunch, people are either hungry or full and can’t give their best to the message. By late afternoon, people are tired and may be a little resistant to listening. Also, make important phone calls in the morning when both you and the listener are at your best.
Finally, make the most of your time to speak. Don’t speak unless you have something significant to say. In meetings, listen more than you speak. Thus when you do speak, people are more likely to listen; if you keep the message concise and information-packed, people will respond to you with complete attention.
Realistically, speaking is not a matter of life and death as it was for President Harrison. How we use speaking time, however, affects both our reputations and how well people listen.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He works with organizations whose people want to speak and listen more effectively to increase professional and personal success. He can be reached at 800.727.6520, or visit www.sboyd.com for free articles and resources to improve your communication skills.