How ‘the 15 percent rule’ will improve your speeches

In speeches and media interviews, figuring you’ll fill 85 percent of the allotted time will keep you from overstaying your welcome and give you wiggle room to be extemporaneous.

Do you know when to stop talking?

It’s said that former President Bill Clinton—famous for speaking well past his assigned time slot, earlier in his career—has reined himself in with what I call the “15 percent rule.” The rule: You plan to fill 85 percent of the time allotted.

That leaves 15 percent of your time as a cushion to ensure you don’t exceed the limit. But the benefits go further, and Clinton uses it as time to make an aside or engage in extemporaneous back-and-forth with the audience, based on where he feels the audience is emotionally.

This rule also works when you are the subject of a media interview. You’ll often hear radio interviewers signal, “We just have 20 seconds left…” to prompt the interviewee to be brief. Why not make better use of your time by stopping short of what you see as complete?

When I coach speakers or train experts in media interview skills, I sometimes ask them to complete a questionnaire in advance. “I talk too long,” is among the most common self-assessment they make. To my mind, that reads as, “I’m unwilling to take the time to plan and make choices about the content I’m going to present, based on the needs of the audience or the interviewer.”

I always recommend using the 15 percent rule to deliver better media interviews and speeches. The old vaudeville rule, “Leave them wanting more,” says it best.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 200 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, DontGetCaught.biz.

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