Three "Rules" of Time on the Page and the Stage

All my life, I’ve enjoyed stories that involved time travel. So far, I have only experienced it in one direction, but the idea that something as impermeable as time can be made fluid or moldable is irresistible.

In every one of my favorite time travel tales – Back to the Future and several Star Trek episodes among them – the central premise is how an event in the past, done differently, changes the future. Another aspect of those stories is equally compelling: the way time “works” is often different than the protagonists expect. Seemingly mundane actions have unexpected results, and the smallest of details impact the flow of time in a big way.

There are also different “rules” of time when you are preparing and delivering a speech. Here are three to remember as you are getting ready:

  1. Crafting a speech takes longer than you may expect.

There’s not a precise ratio, but even a short address can require hours of preparation. That’s because great insight and the perfect anecdotes on do not surface on their own. They have to be drawn out, by examining your origin story, your subject matter and why each is meaningful to you.

This can be done on your own, but the best results come from working with a speechwriter or thought leadership consultant. Every great athlete needs a coach, and an objective third party identifies which aspects of your personal and professional history appeal most to you, and by extension, your audience.

2. Time “works” differently when you’re on stage.

 My fellow club members at Pacers Toastmasters can relate. You work diligently to write a speech that will showcase your mastery of technique, and you add a story that you believe is crucial to the audience’s understanding. Once you’re on stage, though, the timer signals that the seven minutes you were allotted have somehow instantly vanished.

What happened? Your attention is not – and should not – be focused on how much time your speech is taking. That should happen before you ever take the stage. Every pause, every time you hold for applause, your speaking rate – they all affect take time, so plan accordingly.

3. Audience attention is tied to message more than speech length.

 How well a speaker earns the attention of her audience is dependent on a number of factors, but perhaps the most important is the strength and accessibility of her message. Time, however, does play a role in the      psychology of the speaker. Alf Rehn describes a sort of phenomenon in a great piece: the fear of the speaker is often that they won’t have “enough” to say, but the reality is that audiences’ attention span is only ranges from five to ten minutes.

My advice to clients is to have one central theme throughout a speech – even if they are lengthy addresses. This helps focus preparations as we look for the insight and stories on which to build the keynote, and it allows the audience to journey with you while having a sense of where things are going.

Just like in those science fiction stories, time has different rules on stage than it does elsewhere. Use them to your advantage.