Please 🙏 don’t speak more than 20 minutes!

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Limit Your Talks: Please 20-Minute Rule!

We’ve all sat through corporate events where speakers go on too long, present an endless list of bullets and quickly lose their audience.  To help prevent this I’ve always introduced the 20-minute rule in any event I run. The rule is simple: the longest anyone (including the ceo) gets to speak is 20 minutes.  This constraint is meant to be the speaking limit not a minimum so I often design speaking slots that are limited to 5 or 10 minutes and if it’s a really compelling conversation then 20 minutes is the upper limit. 

The 20-minute rule is a constraint created to keep agendas moving along and an audience from getting bored. I’ve always seen that in practice giving everyone less time to deliver their message makes them more effective. The truth is even the most gifted of communicators have a tough time keeping an audience engaged for more than 20 minutes, so let’s all agree that No one should ever speak more than 20 minutes.

But, I wondered what happens when we actually try to benchmark this rule against some of the greatest communicators of our time delivering some of the greatest speeches?  Well as it turns out the most famous speeches ever made that inspired great movements, re-united a nation, and introduced a tech revolution were all less than 15 minutes!

Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream – 7 Minutes

Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a Dream speech changed the trajectory of our country.  His speech defined the civil rights movement  in one of the most iconic speeches in American History and he only needed 7 minutes to do this.  I know none of us may be as talented at Martin Luther King Jr. but if you think you need more to speak, how about spending more time working on your speech .

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 3 Minutes 271 words

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 3 Minutes 271 words

President Lincoln with the Gettysburg Address encapsulated the feelings of a divided nation, gave thousand hope of a better future, and delivered a speech so iconic it would still be taught and memorized by school children more than 150 years later. 

And he did it in 271 words and delivered it in under 3 minutes!

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

But wait you might say I am not a great social or political leader, I am delivering a very complex and technical topic, and there are lots of details that require I spend more than 20 minutes!  Really?  To that I ask how long do you think it took Steve Jobs to introduce the iPhone in 2007? 

Steve Jobs, Introducing the iPhone in 2007 – 14 minutes

That’s right 14 minutes for Steve Jobs to deliver the most technically complex and world changing technology of the 21st century and it only took 14 minutes, with stories, jokes, laughter, applause, etc. 

So next time you think you need more time to convey an idea, please think again.  Consider that some of the greatest leaders of all time, delivering some of the greatest and most inspiring speeches of all time, found a way to do it in under 15 minutes, so us simple humans should be able to come in under 20 minutes.