Heres a question that comes up nearly every week from someone: How much do I need to write for a speech of XX minutes?
My general rule of thumb on the length of speeches is to write – as a first draft – 135 words per delivered minute. Notice I said “as a first draft” and “general rule of thumb.” Exceptions abound.
In general the 135 Rule will get you in the ballpark. For a 20-minute speech, shoot for 2,700 words. For a 15-minute speech, 2,025 or somewhere around 2,000.
Problems arise on two big fronts. First, not every speaker is the same. I used to write for an executive from Mississippi. A great man, leader and gentleman who used to routinely deliver at 89.5 words per minute. Some of that was his deliberate, southern speech. But he also liked to ad-lib. I learned to build those factors in and adjust my copy. If I didn’t, he would exceed his time limit, and that has the potential to antagonize an audience.
When a speaker goes beyond their allotted time on a conference agenda, it not only frustrates the audience it makes it harder for them to hear the speaker’s message, especially the close. They’ve already built in a “the speaker will stop here” mindset and when the speaker goes past that – when they’ve violated that audience expectation – the audience tends to tune them out. (Going over your time slot is also a great way to make conference organizers upset, in case you were ever hoping to be invited back!)
Another CEO – also a great leader – was once clocked at 250 words per minute. Suddenly the amount of copy I had written for one leader was severly inadequate for the other. The good writer listens to the speeches, both past and present, and adjusts accordingly.
Likewise, speakers who are speaking a non-native language typically do – and should – speak a little slower than usual. Not only do the sentences tend to be shorter with more breaks between them, but the audience needs time to catch up as they adjust to any accent.
The 135 Rule lasts as long as the first practice. It’s great for a first draft but might need to be adjusted once the speaker delivers the speech out loud. Delivering the speech verbally – as opposed to simply silently reading it on paper or computer screen – is critical because we all read at a different pace than we deliver. Every now and then I’ll have a speaker say something like “I thought this speech was supposed to be 20 minutes but it took me only 15 to read through it.” It turns out they’ve read it on screen instead of delivering it.
So if you can be in the room – with a stopwatch – when the speaker practices, do it. Or at least ask them to time themselves. Have them go from beginning to end at least once. You’ll not only learn more about the speaker’s style and cadances, you’ll get great insight into how quickly they deliver. And the next draft won’t rely on the 135 Rule.
And if you have to make a choice of either writing too little copy or too much, remember this: Not one audience member ever got angry because a speaker gave them a little time back. It’s a small gift to be sure. But one they’ll appreciate and convey – with warm feelings – onto the speaker.