A typical Toastmasters speech is between five and seven minutes long. When I first started out in Toastmasters, I would write around 800 words and delivering this length of speech would take around six minutes. Now, if I write more than 700 words for a speech, I’m in serious danger of going over the time limit and not finishing what I have to say.
I was aware that I sometimes had a tendency to speak too quickly (especially given I’m a native English speaker often talking to audiences made up of many for whom English is a second language), so I made an effort to slow my pace down. A comfortable pace in speaking, slower than your natural conversational pace, is necessary for your audience to be able to comprehend your speech.
A slower pace alone cannot explain the significant difference in how much I can fit into a seven-minute speech. Another technique important to good speaking is pausing. It’s not something we do in natural conversation, where it feels awkward and the instinct is to fill silence. In speaking, pausing is vital:
- It allows the audience to take in and digest what you are saying.
- When asking a rhetorical question, giving listeners the chance to answer in their own head is necessary.
- If you make a joke, you need to give people a chance to react and enjoy their laughter.
As a speaker, your pauses always feel longer to you than the audience who are thinking about what you’ve said, answering your question, laughing at your humour.
As I’ve become a better speaker, I’ve learnt how to use non-verbal expressions more. Rather than regurgitating by rote the written speech I’d memorised, I’ve experienced the power of using facial expressions and body language to convey a message and connect with your audience. These things take time, which means less words overall in the speech.
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” is a famous quote which has been attributed to various people throughout history, from Mark Twain to Benjamin Franklin to Winston Churchill. It’s repeated use indicates the truth of the statement – it is much harder to condense what you have to say than it is to write or say as much as you like.
By having to condense what you have to get across, you may say less, but you will need to say it more clearly. From experience I can attest that it is far better to be concise, making sure you finish in time with a clear conclusion that brings home your overall message, than running out of time, rushing the end and leaving your audience with a somewhat garbled ending which becomes their lasting impression.
Generally people are going to prefer you finish a bit early rather than a bit late. And if you’re nervous about speaking, then hopefully the prospect of having less to get out there is reassuring! Communicate more with less by refining your message into clear and concise content, slowing your pace and practicing using non-verbal communication such as pauses and body language to emphasise your points.