When To Make A Long Speech: What Would Abraham Lincoln Do? by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
The Gettysburg Address was just two minutes long. It is recognized today as one of the finest speeches ever given in the English language. Generally speaking, a short, crisp, to-the-point presentation such as the Gettysburg Address is more effective than a lengthy one.
But it is a mistake to think that you should never give a long presentation. Lincoln could hold an audience for a very long time.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted several hours. At their debate in Freeport, Illinois, Douglas spoke first for one hour, Lincoln then spoke for an hour-and-a-half, and Douglas concluded the debate with a speech that lasted a half-hour. Their debates were nothing like the made-for-TV presidential debates, with their two-minute cut-offs.
Lincoln’s speech at New York’s Cooper Union, which turned Lincoln into a national figure and paved the way for his presidential nomination, was a long speech.
So, when should your presentation be brief, and when should it be long? Here’s what whatyousay.com recommends.
One. Take into account the expectations of the audience.
In Lincoln’s day, people often traveled long distances to attend a debate or hear a speech or sermon, and would be upset if it was short. That’s still true. If you paid serious money to attend a Broadway play, and it lasted just 15 minutes, you would be upset, and probably would demand a refund.
As a Lincoln performer, if I do a “Lincoln Live” presentation as an after-dinner speech or as a keynote, the presentation will almost never exceed 50 minutes. But if it’s for an event at a theater, it will be considerably longer.
Two. Think strategically.
A sustained presentation can wear down opposition to your idea. Ted Turner, who created TBS and CNN, once made a very long presentation to an important group of cable-system owners in order to convince them to carry all of his networks. He was successful. Sometimes face-to-face presentations will need to stretch out for hours or even days. (This is true of some negotiation and legislative battles, particularly filibusters.)
Three. Study your audience.
Great speakers know how to read one. Are they getting tired? Are they reaching the point of overload? In that case, bring the presentation to a close.
Lincoln gave pithy advice on the subject: “If you have an auditor who has the time and is inclined to listen, lengthen it out slowly as if from a jug. If you have a poor listener, hasten it, shorten it, and shoot it out of a pop gun.”
Four. Think about the main purpose of your presentation.
If it’s to inspire, a short, heartfelt presentation may be just the thing to do. That approach certainly worked at Gettysburg. One major goal of the address was was to inspire the North to keep fighting. The goal–proving that democratic government was strong enough to last–was worth the sacrifice of treasure and blood. Less may be more.
If your purpose is to provide in-depth information, you won’t be able to do that in two minutes–unless you’re as good as Lincoln, who was able to tell his listeners in two minutes everything they needed to know to make the right decision. That’s genius. And that’s the long and short of it.
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You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.
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