Here’s a question I hear nearly every week: “How much do I need to write for an X-minute speech?”
It seems like an innocent question. Unfortunately, reality and experience suggest otherwise.
My general rule of thumb on speech length is to write (as a first draft) 135 words per delivered minute. Of course, exceptions abound.
In general, this 135 rule will get you in the ballpark. For a 20-minute speech, shoot for 2,700 words. For a 15-minute speech, shoot for 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. He was a great man and leader who used to routinely deliver 89.5 words per minute. Some of that was his deliberate southern speech, but he also liked to ad-lib.
I learned to build in those factors and adjust my copy. If I didn’t, he would exceed his time limit, which has the potential to antagonize an audience.
When a speaker goes beyond his allotted time on a conference agenda, it not only frustrates the audience, but makes it harder for them to hear the speaker’s message—especially the close.
They already built in a “the speaker will stop here” mindset, and when the speaker goes past that—when he violates that audience expectation—the audience tends to tune out.
Going over your time slot is also a great way to make conference organizers upset.
Another CEO (also a great leader) once clocked 250 words per minute. Suddenly the amount of copy I wrote for one leader was severely inadequate for the other. A good writer listens to the speeches, both past and present, and adjusts accordingly.
Second, speakers who speak a non-native language typically talk a little slower than usual, as they should. Not only do their sentences tend to be shorter with more breaks between them, but the audience needs time to catch up as they adjust to an accent.
The 135 rule lasts as long as the first practice. It’s great for a first draft, but you might need to adjust once the speaker delivers the speech out loud. Delivering a speech verbally, as opposed to silently reading it on paper or a computer screen, is critical because we all read at a different pace than we deliver.
Every now and then a speaker will say something like, “I thought this speech was supposed to be 20 minutes, but it took me only 15 to read through it.” It usually turns out he read it on a screen instead of delivering it.
If you can be in the room with a stopwatch when the speaker practices, do it. Or at least ask the speaker to time himself. Have him go from beginning to end at least once. You’ll not only learn more about the speaker’s style and cadences, but get great insight into how quickly he delivers.
And, the next draft won’t rely on the 135 rule.
If you have to choose whether to write too little copy or too much, remember this: No audience ever got angry because a speaker gave them a little time back. It’s a small gift, but one they’ll appreciate and convey with warm feelings to the speaker.
Fletcher Dean is director, executive speechwriting, for Dow Chemical Co. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Speechwriting 2.0.