Four Minutes Flat

Just before the service began, I said to my eulogists (including Henry Kissinger), “I have snipers positioned up there”– pointing to the temple – “with instructions to shoot anyone who goes over four minutes.” – Christopher Buckley, “Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir”

Think back over the many speeches you have heard: your high school graduation address, the keynote at the last conference, the State of the Union. Can you repeat any speech’s message? What about a quote?

Yeah, me neither. But I bet you remember shifting uncomfortably in your seat when you lost interest in the speaker.

Truth is, most speeches are too long. Way too long. Christopher Buckley is right: four minutes is long enough.

Short speeches are memorable. Short speeches are powerful. Short speeches don’t bore the audience.

When you’re asked to give a speech, no matter the context, plan for four minutes flat. Here’s how to build a fearsome four-minute talk:

  1. Distill a four-word message. If someone asks what your speech is about, you should be able to respond in about four words. “Regional sales are up.” “Improving your short game.” “We’re going to war.” Anything that doesn’t drive toward that message should be eliminated.
  2. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Speeches usually go too long because the speaker decides to wing it. That’s a mistake. A speech is a one-way conversation, and you have to decide not only what to say but also what’s not worth saying. Each sentence counts. Spend time writing down your ideas, and start pruning.
  3. One good story. One well-chosen anecdote is more memorable than a laundry list. Resist the urge to pile on the funny stories about your brother or review the long list of charitable works by your colleague. Volume dilutes quality. Pick your best story, and let it shine alone.
  4. Practice. Don’t trust that once you’ve written your remarks that you can just deliver it on the first try. You need to practice the speech with a stopwatch. Saying the words aloud will alert you to clumsy sentences or a difficult word series – things you don’t always notice when you’re reading. A stopwatch will help you determine your pacing as well as whether you’re exceeding the time limit. A slow speech pace is about 100 words a minute; a conversational pace is around 120-150 words. Depending on your speaking rate, your remarks should be around 400 to 600 words.

Unless your name is Bill Clinton, Billy Graham or one of just a handful of the world’s great speakers, no one will ever complain that your speech just wasn’t long enough. In fact, your audience will likely retain more of your talk because it was succinct and well-organized.

(Try this at home: read this blog post aloud at a leisurely pace. At about 475 words, it should clock in at around … you guessed it … four minutes.)

Kerri Richardson

C2 Vice President

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