Have you ever thought about the relationship between time and public speaking?
On the surface, you engage your audience second by second, stringing together words into sentences that, over the duration of your presentation, may last minutes or perhaps hours.
Yet, the impact of your speaking experiences may last days, weeks, months, or even years — for you and for those in your audiences.
In this article, we examine time scales ranging from a tenth of a second to hundreds of years, and consider how each of these scales is relevant to you as a speaker.
One Tenth of a Second
A typical speaking rate is 150 words per minute, or 2.5 words per second. This means the average time between words is just four tenths of a second. When you consider pauses, a syllable leaves your lips in about a tenth of a second. (Your brain, of course, has to operate on a much faster scale to keep up.)
In one tenth of a second, perceptions form in your audience’s mind — either positive or negative. It could be an inflection that makes them cringe, or a visual that evokes a warm memory. It could be a facial expression which betrays a lack of sincerity, or a crackling voice which signals genuine emotion.
Pauses in your speech range from a short “comma pause” (about one second) to longer pauses for rhetorical effect (lasting several seconds). The duration of pauses is critical; if it’s too long, you’ve got an uncomfortable pause.
The enemy of the pause is the filler word: utterances which include “um”, “uh”, and “ah”. Everyone has a few filler words, but they are more common among speakers who are inexperienced, unprepared, or especially nervous. Skilled speakers understand that, instead of filler words, you can simply pause while you collect your thoughts; you don’t need a filler word to mark the moment.
Although the audience perceives slide visuals on the sub-second level, slide recognition occurs on the order of a second. Well-designed slides are recognized easily, and their meaning is associated the words of a speaker quickly. Particularly confusing slides can cause several seconds (or more) of high cognitive processing.
Effective eye contact is achieved when your gaze finds an audience member, and then stays there for perhaps a sentence or two — generally in the ten second range. Eye contact which is significantly shorter — like a ping pong ball — will seem insincere. Eye contact which is significantly longer may be uncomfortable, and perhaps leave other audience members feeling “left out.”
Ten seconds is also the range in which complete sentences are spoken, including most memorable phrases and quotations. You should be able to clearly summarize your main message within ten seconds.
One minute is about the length of good story which a speaker might tell. Stories significantly shorter probably do not develop adequate conflict, emotion, or a significant message. Stories significantly longer could likely benefit either from aggressive editing (removing superfluous details which detract from the story) or splitting in two (in case more than one point is being made).
One minute is about the maximum time needed to introduce a speaker in most contexts. Any longer than this, and the introducer risks boring the audience and stealing attention away from the speaker.
Ten minutes is the upper limit for what many people might call a “short” speech. In ten minutes, you’ve only got time to properly develop one central idea, while supporting it with several stories and supporting points. It requires precise focus and discipline from a speaker.
Many popular formats hover around this average.
- Speaking formats such as Pecha Kucha (six minutes forty seconds) or Ignite (five minutes) restrict speakers down further and yet are wildly popular social events.
- TED talks (which have been reviewed numerous times on Six Minutes) come in various lengths, but the longest top out at 18 minutes.
In a longer speaking session (e.g. a training session), ten minutes is a rule of thumb for switching gears. It’s wise to vary your technique, switch formats, and otherwise add variety to your session to keep the energy of your session high.
One hour is a common length of a keynote address or the corporate staple known as the noon-hour seminar. One hour provides time for a speaker to cover their topic in much more depth and breadth, as well as allowing for an extended question and answer (Q&A) period.
One hour is the most common length of a Toastmasters meeting. It’s short enough to allow members to fit it into their hectic day, but long enough to cover the core elements (prepared speeches, evaluations, and impromptu speaking).
One hour is also a convenient duration for speech coaching sessions. A good speaking coach can work with you to explore your strengths and weaknesses, and one hour provides lots of time for repetitive practice as well.
Ten hours is the upper bound for a daily seminar, or the daily program at many conferences. Most people will get pretty fatigued with 10 hours of listening to speakers. Speaking in this environment requires special skill in balancing valuable information with lighter, less cognitively draining activities.
One day is a practical upper bound for someone in your audience to act on your call-to-action. Nick Morgan claims that “the only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” I agree, and that starts by changing the thoughts and actions of individual audience members. Your speech should be designed with a clear and emphatic call-to-action. It should be challenging enough that opting to do it truly does represent change, but simple enough that it can be started within a day of your speech.
- For example, “losing 20 pounds” is not a call-to-action,
but “starting an exercise habit tomorrow” is.
One day is also the outer range where you can receive useful feedback on your presentation (assuming it was not recorded, of course). The best time to solicit feedback is during (e.g. a feedback form) or immediately after (e.g. mingling with your audience) your presentation. Asking for feedback days or weeks after a presentation is not likely to reap many rewards as the feedback you receive will tend to be generic.
One week is a healthy period to practice your presentation. You certainly don’t need to practice twenty-four hours a day for a full week; thirty minutes per day will usually suffice. Rather than cramming all of your practice into the night before your presentation — or worse, the morning of your speech — consider spreading it over a week to allow yourself the time to become more comfortable with the content.
One week is also a good interval during which you should try to devote some time to developing your speaking skills. Like any habit, it’s hard to built momentum if you don’t get regular exposure. This includes both speaking before an audience, as well as support activities like working on speeches, gathering speechwriting material, or reading speaking blogs and books. It is not a coincidence that Toastmasters clubs (and most other extra-curricular activities) are designed to establish weekly participation.
Ten weeks is about the length of time it takes to establish a new speaking habit. Most of us resist change, either consciously or subconsciously. If you want to develop a new habit (speaking or otherwise), doing it once or twice will not suffice.
Ten weeks is the also upper limit needed to fully prepare for most major presentations. Do you think that’s too long? Well, let me bound it a bit.
- By “major presentations”, I’m talking about the ones which can make or break your career (like landing a new client) or help you achieve a personal goal (like making your case before city council for a new bylaw).
- By “fully prepare”, I mean the time from your initial idea that you’d like to give a speech to the time you deliver it. You might spend the first four or five weeks just brainstorming or researching content. Then, you might spend the next few weeks writing, practicing in front of a test audience, and honing your delivery.
One year is long enough to set yourself on a new speaking path. The new path depends a great deal on where you are now, and what your goals for the future are:
- Maybe “I’m terrified of speaking” gets replaced with “I’m scared, but I speak”.
- Maybe “I’m scared, but I speak” gets replaced with “I feel nervous, but I harness that energy”.
- Maybe “I speak when I am required to” gets replaced with “I enjoy speaking whenever I can”.
In one year, you could recognize an opportunity, develop a course, market yourself, and launch supplementary income or a whole new career.
Over a span of ten years, you can completely reshape yourself with a disciplined, committed approach to improving your communication skills, and translating that into becoming more effective at whatever path you choose to pursue.
For example, maybe devoting yourself to becoming a master communicator will launch you into management and steer your career to new heights.
One Hundred Years (and more)
You may not live this long, but your words can live one hundred years or longer.
Maybe you’re going to give a political speech that is quoted for centuries to come.
Or, more likely, you’re going to inspire your children, your grandchildren, and your audience members with a message that continues to become more and more powerful as the years pass.
Individual syllables, which last only tenths of a second on your lips, can last for hundreds of years if they are carefully chosen. Consider that the next time you are writing your speech.
Inspiration for This Article
You may be interested on know that the inspiration for this article is Powers of Ten, a classic documentary by Charles and Ray Eames which can be viewed below.
As a science geek, the documentary is fascinating, but there are lessons to be learned for speakers too. Some particularly effective techniques include:
- The use of a common, everyday occurrence to set the initial context.
- The frequent use of comparison to easily understandable distances (e.g. 100 meters: the distance a man can run in 10 seconds)
- The simple, repetitive use of 10 and the consistent pace of the documentary.