Tag Archives: public speaking

Want to Make Your Point Powerfully? Make it Quickly!

How long can you sit quietly and pay attention before you become distracted?

Attention spans are universally decreasing, thanks to our media-rich environment. According to experts, there are two types of listening:

  • Listening with retention means listening without being distracted andcommitting the information to memory. Under ideal conditions, adults can listen with retention for up to 10 minutes.
  • Listening with comprehension means listening without becoming distracted. It’s possible for adults to listen with comprehension up to 20 minutes.

We also know listeners’ attention is best at the beginning of a session and decreases from that point.

If you work with people, this is really important: The longer we talk, the less people pay attention. Regardless of whether 60-minute meetings and half-day trainings become a thing of the past, this information should inform what we cover and the order in which we present it.

If you’re wondering if anything can be conveyed effectively in such a short time, think about this historical example: In November 1863, the public was invited to hear famed orator Edward Everett eulogize the Union soldiers at the cemetery dedication at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, followed by remarks by President Lincoln to close the ceremony.

Everett’s Gettysburg Oration was a 2-hour speech about warfare, heroism, and the gallantry of the Union army. At its close, the audience applauded enthusiastically before settling back to listen to the president. Lincoln rose and delivered 10 sentences – the Gettysburg Address – in two minutes. Afterwards, there was no applause: the crowd appeared to be stunned.

Today, few people have heard of the Gettysburg Oration, but the Gettysburg Address is recognized as one of the best speeches ever made. Everett was one of the first to recognize its brilliance. The next day, he wrote to Lincoln: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

We don’t need to spend a lot of time to make an important point. Brevity is a powerful and underused communication tool!


Fun fact: There is only one confirmed photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg. In the early days of photography, it took several minutes to set up a shot. The cameramen assumed, as everyone had, that Lincoln would speak at least an hour. By the time they realized his speech was over, it was too late to take a picture.




Silence as a Statement

Political leaders are rarely known for being quiet. However, silence doesn’t necessarily equate lack of communication. Let’s look at two examples of public figures who communicated effectively using silence.

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was nicknamed Silent Cal. In fact, Coolidge was so reluctant to speak that he often made important statements in writing, even if he was in the same room as the person with whom he was communicating. Coolidge, however, believed his silence was a strength: “I have never been hurt by anything I didn’t say.”

In 1927, President Coolidge announced a rare press conference. Reporters were asked to file past the president as they arrived, and Coolidge personally handed each man a strip of paper that said, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”



The reporters were stunned. Coolidge was considered a shoo-in for another term. They pelted the president with questions. Why didn’t he want to run? Was he afraid he might lose? What did he want to do after his presidency? Who would he support as the next president?

At last Coolidge spoke: “There will be nothing more from this office today.”


Did you know Adolf Hitler is one of the most frequently cited communicators in history? His ability to hold an audience spellbound with words and gestures continues to fascinate communication experts, even as it defies understanding.  Hitler’s use of silence is not as well-known, but he did use it very effectively as a method of commanding a crowd’s complete attention.


Huge crowds would come to hear the dictator speak, and even with a microphone to amplify his voice, Hitler couldn’t compete with thousands of other chattering voices. So when he was ready to speak, he would stand in the center of the stage silently. The people in the front row immediately quieted, feeling the Fuhrer’s eyes on them. The rows behind them became quiet as they realized no one in front of them was speaking. Like a wave, each row became quiet until the place was absolutely silent. Every eye was focused on Hitler, every ear strained to hear what he had to say – all without him saying a word.

Perhaps silence is the most underused method of communication?

A Communication Lesson from Abraham Lincoln

source: http://www.civilwarphotography.org/

The crowd at Gettysburg source: http://www.civilwarphotography.org/

In November 1863, a group gathered at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg for a cemetery dedication. Luminaries such as Edward Everett and President Abraham Lincoln were in attendance at solemn occasion. Everett, a famed statesman and orator, was the featured speaker. At the request of the planning committee, President Lincoln agreed to share “a few appropriate remarks” at the close of the ceremony.

Edward Everett

Edward Everett

Everett stood and delivered a speech that spanned centuries of warfare and heroism. He eulogized the Union soldiers while drawing more than a dozen historical parallels from western history. The speech, now referred to as the Gettysburg Oration, lasted over two hours, and the applause afterwards confirmed newspaper accounts that it was “favorably received” by listeners.

Shortly after Everett finished speaking, Lincoln stood before the group to close the ceremony. In just over two minutes, the President delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address. When he finished speaking, there was no applause. According to multiple sources, the crowd seemed stunned into silence.

The only confirmed photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg

The only confirmed photograph of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

Since that day, there has been no shortage of praise for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Edward Everett, whose 13,5oo-word epic had been eclipsed by the President’s brief remarks, was among the first to recognize its brilliance. The day after the ceremony, he sent a letter to the President, which read in part: “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Writers and speakers frequently make the mistake of thinking a certain number of words is necessary to bolster the credibility of their message. In reality, the opposite is usually true. Most readers and listeners can spot filler words and unnecessary phrases quickly, and they have the unintended impact of causing an audience to lose interest. Brevity is a powerful – and underused – communication tool!