Don’t be an auctioneer

If you’ve ever been to an auction, you know how fast auctioneers talk. You couldn’t measure the speed of those words if you had a radar gun. But that’s okay if you’re an auctioneer, because the only words your audience needs to understand are the prices and the magic word “Sold!”

In a speech, on the other hand, you probably want your audience to understand everything you say. Because if they don’t, they’ll tune out; they won’t remember a thing you’ve said. And why even bother to give a speech if you don’t want the audience to remember your ideas?

Good writer, awful speech

I still remember one conference (20 years ago!) where one of my favorite writers was slated to give the keynote speech. They told him the slot was 60 minutes but they forgot to tell him he was sharing that time with another speaker. He’d written an hour-long speech (we can talk some other time about how crazy that is), but he only had half an hour to deliver it.

What did he do?

He refused to cut one word—he just turned into an auctioneer, delivering the speech twice as fast as he would normally talk. Which, since he was a New Yorker, was already faster than most. The only thing I remember about his speech was that it contained a lasagna recipe. Surely he could have left that out, I thought.

I’m sure in other circumstances, I would have enjoyed the fine writing that must have been buried in that onslaught of words. I might have found him charming, even. Instead, he came across as petulant and self-centered. Do I need to add that I haven’t read another word he’s written since?

I don’t think many speakers encounter a situation that extreme, but it’s not entirely unique. Sometimes you find yourself with more speech than you have time. That’s part of what happened to one of my Type A clients when she threw away the opening I had written for her. As I said previously, that’s not the right solution.

Becoming an auctioneer is never the right solution

If you arrive at the venue and find that the organizer has clearly not been organized enough to give you accurate timing for your speech, ask for a few minutes and a Sharpie and do a little speech-liposuction. Don’t cut entire swaths of it—unless there’s a standalone section. Cut a couple of sentences here, a paragraph there.

You’ve practiced it lots already (right?) so you know how long it takes to deliver. Depending on how you or your speechwriter has formatted the text, it’s generally 1-2 minutes per page. Use that as a guideline and do your best.

And next time that organization asks you to speak, have your people double- and triple-check the timing.

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