Don’t Say Too Much

One of the keys to effective public speaking is knowing when to stop—and I don’t mean just at the end of the presentation. Stopping within a presentation is also important. Your story can be too long or contain too much unnecessary information. You may take too long to answer a question; you may spend too much time explaining a visual aid.

The general principle for all of these speaking elements is to stop when audience interest is at its peak. When telling a story, the speaker should have a sense of direction. Never take too long to describe a scene and don’t take too long to get to the point of the story. The story has to be exceptional to take more than two minutes of speaking time. When you get to the point of the story—stop!  Don’t explain and review the story after the punch line; this is the time to move on. Let the point of the story be what you leave the audience to think about. If you feel a need to explain the story, you probably have not done a good job of telling the story in the first place.

Answer a question as concisely as possible. Your goal should be thirty seconds or less. The only person really interested in knowing the answer is probably the person who asked the question; the rest of the audience will get bored quickly with information that is unimportant to them. In addition, if you take too long to give your answer the audience will lose interest. If you start summarizing and repeating parts of your answer, you have gone too long. If you can answer a question in one sentence or with one word, do so. That will insure that you have finished at the height of audience interest.

In providing statistical evidence, stop with the most significant statistic and divide statistics into threes if you have several to give. That is all the audience can assimilate at one time. Providing information in threes is a pattern that audiences respond to with good attention.

If you are telling a funny story, and the audience does not respond as you expected, do not explain what you think they may have missed. Just move on to your next point.

There certainly is a point about knowing when to stop at the end of the presentation as well. Know before you begin how much time you have to speak and then plan to stop a couple of minutes before time is up. Learn ahead of time if your time limit includes the question and answer period. If it does, time your speech to include a five- or ten-minute question and answer period. Tell them as you begin the question and answer period how much time you will allow for that and then deliver your conclusion after the q and a. This allows you to control the end so that you can stay within the time frame. Our culture is very time-conscious and a speaker will be perceived as more effective if he or she does not exceed the time limit.

The point of speaking is not just to share information with an audience; it is also to know when to stop sharing. Leave the audience wanting to hear more. You know you have succeeded when you hear departing audience members saying, “Time went so fast; I could have listened for another hour!”

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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