Ever wondered how long your talks should be? Or how long you can speak before running the risk of losing (and likely not recovering) audience attention?
At one level these may seem like ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions, but, truth is: They’re really “I wouldn’t start from here’ questions.
Before casting a thought to whether any talk is too long, always start by asking this: ‘What do you want to achieve with your speech?’
Just because you could hold the stage for a longer period of time doesn’t mean you should. Day in and day out, millions of potentially super presentations are wrecked by speakers who went on and on…And in the process, vital audience attention was squandered.
And who can blame any audience if their attention wanders in the face of being bored out of their gourd? As John Andrew Holmes put it so nicely years ago:
“When a sermon at length comes to an end, people rise and praise God, and they feel the same way after many other speeches!”
True that. So, what should you do instead?
Forget speech length calculations, think about this first
Don’t worry about how many words you can share in 10 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.
Instead, devote serious energy to figuring out how you plan to engage your audiences emotionally at the outset of your speech, again and again during your talk, and in your closing.
Because every decision you make as a human – including when you choose to pay attention – is triggered by an emotional reaction. And without winning and keeping audience attention, your chances of inspiring engagement, recall, and action from your talks will fall off a cliff!
But there’s a snag here. How do you strike a balance between emotional resonance and the facts/information you feel you need to share during any given talk…especially if you have plenty to say?
What’s the 10-minute rule and how does it affect audience attention?
While there’s no hard and fast rule on how long a speaker can hold an audience’s attention…
…You can learn something from the reason TEDx talks are so popular on YouTube. It because each talk is focused on a single, interesting idea and is delivered in a succinct and very story-centric fashion.
But even the TEDx talks – reflecting the fact it’s getting harder and harder to hold anyone’s attention for a long time online – have been reduced from an average of 18 minutes when they started 10 years ago to closer to 10 minutes today. And, interestingly, that 10 minutes also happens to be the sweet-spot video length for the most popular ‘how-to’ tutorial videos on YouTube today too. So that’s instructive, right?
But what happens if 10 minutes won’t cut it for you and you’re expected to speak for 20, 30, 40 or even 60 minutes? Now what? How do you keep your audience engaged?
Enter some really sage advice from academic and author of Brain Rules John Medina who argues that it pays to break any speech into a collection of discrete 10-minute segments while keeping the following in mind:
“Each segment covers a single core concept – always large, always general, always filled with ‘gist’, and always explainable in one minute.”
Use emotional jump leads to keep audiences at the edges of their seats
He quite rightly says he has to recapture his audience’s attention after every ten minutes and earn the right to be heard for another 600 seconds.
How? With emotional jump leads.
Come up with new hooks for each segment of your speech – which you use to jump-start your audience by tapping afresh into their emotions and helping them to feel something. Keep reinvigorating your audience.
Stories that have a point are a great way to accomplish this.
FYI – Without emotional jump leads every now and then, there’s a good chance your audience will check out and as a peer in the US likes to say ‘take a mental voyage on which you, the speaker, are not invited’.
And the longer your audience is not focused on what you say, the more likely they won’t remember what they heard before they zoned out.
No matter how long you speak, don’t ask audiences to multi-task
But beware – as mentioned in previous articles – limit yourself to just one central theme for a speech, regardless of how long you speak for.
Don’t ask your audience to multi-task by remembering too many things. They can’t and won’t remember multiple messages.
So, if you’re speaking for more than 10 minutes…
…make sure each segment to your speech is related and builds logically from what you’ve said before – reinforcing, developing and complementing what you want your audience to take from your speech.
Your take on the number of words in a speech versus winning attention?
What approaches have you used to gain and keep your audiences’ attention?
What has worked for you and what lessons have you learned?