Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Keep speeches short, simple

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Whenever you write a speech, lecture or presentation, apply the “less is more” principle. In general, the simpler your words are, the more your audience — no matter how sophisticated it is — will understand. And the shorter your talk, the more likely you will be to maintain your audience’s attention to the end.

Two memorable speeches that incorporated the “less is more” principle:

The Gettysburg Address. Delivered by President Lincoln on Nov. 19, 1863, to dedicate Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., the address was short — perhaps because Lincoln had not been invited as the main speaker. Instead, according to his invitation, he had been invited merely to “set apart these grounds … by a few appropriate (proper) remarks.” Or perhaps the speech was short because Lincoln was suffering from a “slight” case of smallpox, or simply because Lincoln was often a man of few words.

The address was so short that the event’s photographer was still setting up his equipment when Lincoln had finished. Hence, not a single photo of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address exists.

Nevertheless, in just 266 words and delivered in about two minutes, the Gettysburg Address conveyed an eloquence and an evocative definition of the meaning of the Civil War that helped make it one of the best-known speeches in U.S. history.

By contrast, the event’s main speaker — Edward Everett, one of the nation’s foremost orators of the day — followed Lincoln’s presentation with a two-hour speech that remains famous only for its long-winded, forgettable nature.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. Shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Roosevelt was advised by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to respond with a long speech detailing Japanese-American relationships and the protracted U.S. efforts to find a peaceful solution with Japan. Roosevelt defied Hull’s advice, and intentionally kept his speech short to compound its dramatic effect; the speech ran only about 6½ minutes and contained fewer than 600 words.

Roosevelt delivered the speech to Congress the day after the attack. Within one hour, Congress passed a formal declaration of war against Japan and thereby officially plunged the U.S. into World War II, as Roosevelt had requested in his speech. What’s more, the live radio broadcast of the speech attracted the largest audience in U.S. radio history and drew widespread accolades from politicians and lay people alike.

Interestingly, in an early draft of the speech, Roosevelt described Dec. 7 as “a date that would live in world history” — a simpler phrase but one that lacked the thunder of the “day of infamy” description. That just goes to show that there is occasionally a place for big words in speeches if they enhance drama or eloquence or are needed to convey a specific meaning.

As videos, Twitter, text messages and e-mail continue to compete for the public’s attention, the “less is more” principle is only becoming more important. Here are some ways you can apply this principle to your own speeches, lectures and presentations:

• Identify and focus your talk on a core message; give your audience the needle without the haystack.

• Make every word count. Every additional word you include beyond what conveys or supports your core message will dilute your message, risk driving your audience away and make your presentation less memorable.

• Use simple words, except in rare instances when only a big word will do.

• Scrutinize your words, sentences and paragraphs, and look for ways to convey your ideas with shorter words, simpler concepts and less text.