Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, said he needed two weeks to prepare a 10-minute speech, one week to prepare a one-hour speech, but could begin without notice to deliver a two-hour speech.
Experience will soon teach you that the shorter your speech, the longer you must prepare. Provided you respect your subject and your audience, that is. This is especially true of important talks, such as college commencement addresses and graveside eulogies. The more important the occasion, and the less time you have to talk, the more time you must take to prepare.
Two groups of people who know the truth of this are writers of greeting cards and writers of car bumper stickers. In no other area of the written word are writers required to condense so much meaning into such a small piece of real estate. Capturing the emotion and mood suitable for a 40th wedding anniversary card, for example, takes time. Capturing the essence of the pro-life case in just five words is equally as tough, but it can be done if you’re willing to put in the mental sweat needed ( “Abortion stops a beating heart”).
Seemingly impromptu speeches take weeks to prepare. Maybe a lifetime. People are still talking today about the address that Abraham Lincoln made at Gettysburg, yet he spoke for only a few minutes. No one remembers a single word of the speech given by the man who preceded Lincoln on the dias, and who spoke for two hours. Lincoln spent weeks on his address. And it showed.
When you are invited (or, if you are in business, you are commanded!) to deliver a speech or talk, expect your nervousness to increase with the level of importance of the occasion and the less time you are given, but to decrease with your level of preparation. Crafting a 10-minute talk that is recited by school children hundreds of years after your death must cost you something in mental effort and time expended. So overcome your jitters with preparation.
Communicating complex ideas or emotional subjects in a few words or in a few minutes is one of the hardest things you will ever be called upon to do. So don’t make the blunder of thinking you can ad-lib a short talk, or that you need to spend more time on longer speeches. And don’t think you can simply stand up and talk for longer than the time you’ve been allotted. As President Roosevelt once observed, your responsibility as a public speaker is simple: Be sincere, be brief, be seated.