How To Be an Ace Speaker

Jack Welch and Sybase CEO John Chen know clarity and brevity are key to effective communication. Harness their ideas in your business

We're at the peak of graduation season. I've already been to two and there's one more on the way. Although I'm thrilled for my family members who passed these milestones, I cringe during the two-hour-plus ceremonies whenever I see another long list of speakers, because I know one of them will violate the cardinal rule of any presentation—keep it brief!

According to a recent Associated Press survey, Americans are running out of patience. We can't stand to wait more than five minutes on the phone, and we start fuming in long grocery lines. Acknowledge this reality in your talks, e-mails, phone calls, presentations, meetings, and any other type of professional communications by getting to the point. Fast.


  Former GE (GE) Chief Executive Jack Welch, who writes a marvelous column for BusinessWeek with his wife, Suzy (see, "The Welch Way") demanded concision and simplicity from his managers. Welch would ask his managers to prepare one-page answers to strategic questions. I've seen longer memos between individuals planning lunch. Business was simple, Welch would advise. No need to make it complicated.

Great leaders keep their conversations no longer than they need be and expect the same from others. Sybase (SY) CEO John Chen once told me the mark of a leader is the ability to articulate a message that's passionate, clear, and concise. One famous entrepreneur recommended that if my clients were long-winded I should simply tell them, "Nobody is as interested in you as you think they are!" I've never used that piece of advice, because I want to keep my clients, but it makes the point. I'll reiterate: keep your communications short.


 In my career as a communications coach, I've interviewed many venture capitalists who see dozens of presentations every week. If an entrepreneur doesn't get to the point in the first 15 minutes, they're shown the door. In fact, 15 minutes is about the length of the average attention span. Research shows that after 15 to 20 minutes our attention drops dramatically. It's no coincidence that President John F. Kennedy's inaugural—one of the most inspiring speeches ever given—was scripted for 15 minutes. President Ronald Reagan gave strict instructions to his speechwriters to avoid talks of more than 15 minutes in length. He understood the need for brevity. Have you noticed that segments on 60 Minutes run no more than 15 to 17 minutes? There's a reason for that.

Look, I don't know who's responsible for our declining attention span. Whether it's MTV or video games, that's a question for a sociologist to answer. My goal as a communications coach is simply to make you the most engaging speaker at your company or in your industry. With that in mind, here are some tips:


If you only had 30 seconds to grab someone's attention, what would you say? This is known as an elevator pitch. Think of it as a commercial—for your product, company, service, or yourself! It forces you to key in on the most important elements of your message. Here's a hint to help you get started—listeners want to know three things—what you do, how you're different, and why they should care.


Nobody can tell you what the ideal length of an e-mail should be. But like all great speakers, make sure you edit for brevity. I saw the edits JFK made on his inaugural speech before the final draft—he crossed out a ton of lines to make the speech shorter. Here's a simple gut check: If you have to scroll down to a second page of e-mail text, it had better be an appropriate length for the conversation. Nobody wants to waste their time with ramblings.

Phone conversations

If you think you might reach someone's message machine, prepare a 30-second script. Again, no hard and fast rules, but if you leave a message that's longer than 30 seconds, most busy professionals will either be annoyed or delete the message before the end. I have said this before, but if you're pitching a new prospect, give them your phone number twice—once at the beginning and once at the end of the message.


Again, most people have an attention span that falls off dramatically after 15 to 20 minutes. We're just wired that way. Go figure. With that in mind, keep your presentations and talks to that timeframe unless, of course, your presentation requires more time, such as a half-day course on a particular subject. But when that's the case, keep the 20-minute rule in mind and break the presentation into 20-minute blocks with different topics, exercises, demonstrations, or even breaks.


  Recently I wrote a column on how to improve your PowerPoint presentations (see, 6/02/06, "How to PowerPoint Like a Pro"). Since then I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the premier venture capitalists in the country, Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson. His firm was behind such companies as Hotmail (MSFT), Baidu, and Skype (acquired by eBay(EBAY)). In an initial presentation he says he only wants to see three slides, with no more than three lines of text on each. Three slides!

I can't tell you how many sales pitches I've watched that contain seven times that number. Please don't tell me your material is simply too complicated. I once worked with a CEO whose company was about to go public. His initial presentation lasted more than an hour and contained over 70 slides. After some editing, we brought it down to 20 minutes and 10 slides. This CEO went on to have a successful initial public offering during a time when few companies were being funded, let alone going public.

One of the most inspiring leaders of the 20th century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his new book on FDR, The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter makes some observations about just how much Roosevelt edited his speeches, especially his "fireside chats" on the radio. I was struck by how Roosevelt understood the importance of clarity and brevity. According to Alter, "FDR knew the actor's trick of always leaving the audience wanting more. 'The public psychology and, for that matter, individual psychology, cannot, because of human weakness, be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest notes in the scale,' he [FDR] wrote to an old friend in 1935."

In fact, not only did most of the chats last under 30 minutes, Roosevelt gave very few of them. Roosevelt knew instinctively that less is more, especially when it comes to the art of human communication. So don't take my word for it, take the cue from some of the world's greatest leaders—keep it short!

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