Thursday, December 10, 2009

Editing Your Speech: The Power of Precision

Last month I finally finished Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rands legendary book about capitalism v. communism v. objectivism. As the story goes, her editor had asked her to cut 200 pages from the book, resulting in Ayn Rand renegotiating her royalties from the book to a smaller amount in return for her manuscript printing as she intended. 

Personally, I think she could have cut 200 pages quite easily! The speech at the end of the book alone would take, according to this Atlas Shrugged FAQ - 3 hours! I can barely sit through the 3 hour version of the Lord of the Rings, much less read or listen to a 3 hour speech.

Modern speaking tends to go no longer than 45-60 minutes at a time, but the need for editing remains. Too many speakers fall in love with their words and phrases, or insist on covering every detail of their subject, or simply don't understand how to get to the bottom line before sending their audiences retreating into the movie theatre of their own minds for escape.

Signs you should edit your speech:

1. Your speech has more than one overall point (Saving the environment AND supporting the health care program - both points could be used as supporting points in a speech about political philosophy, but then the one overall point is about the political philosophy).

2. You are presenting points as soundbytes instead of stories. When you tell me what you want without showing me why you want it, you are wasting your breath and my time.

3. You are presenting more than one point every 4-6 minutes. In a 60 minute speech, have ONE overall point (saving the environment) and no more than one supporting point for every 10 minute period. Your audience can only take in so much information at one time.

4. If you aren't allowing your audience to Go Ahead and Laugh at least every 2-3 minutes, you need to find the humor in your speech before your listeners transform into uninterested watchers, cartoon scribblers, or Blackberry escapees. When you add to, you'll always need to edit out.

5. You find yourself running out of time before you reach your conclusion - preferably in your practice sessions as opposed to live, paying audiences.

As professionals, we need to be constantly editing our work. We learn something new every time we deliver a speech, and editing our speeches accordingly keeps them fresh, and continually improving. Sharpening our editing blade gives us the ability to be flexible on the fly, when a new story or incident comes up that may bump, for a night, or forever, a story from our current speech. 

Take a speech you currently give, or are about to give, and cut 20 percent. You don't think you can, but you can. Look for unnecessary set-up phrases, dialogue cues, and passive sentence structures. Consider the strength of each story, each bit of humor. Cut out bunny trails - times when what you are saying doesn't directly correlate with the point of your talk. Cutting 20 percent will force you to be creative and concise. Once you do, you'll be amazed at the time you have carved out of your speech that can be filled with humor, pauses, even additional audience interaction.

Editing tools to make your speech swashbuckling safe and easy:

1. Word Count - in most any word processing program, you will have, under Tools, a word count option to assist you in keeping track.

2. Save As - always save your editing document separately, no use throwing words out you may need later.

3. Voice Recognition Software - don't like to write it down? Give your speech into your computers microphone, and let the VRS type it for you. I've heard good things about Dragon NaturallySpeaking - comment below with your experience or alternatives.

4. Hiring a Virtual Assistant or transcriptionist to turn your recording into a manuscript. Use your spouse or children at your own risk.

5. Hire a speech coach (I think there's one around here somewhere) and let him or her cut it down for you. I'm not married to your words like you are, and will show no mercy as I pare your speech down to the essentials so we can build it back up into a trim but powerful piece of spoken prose and poetry.

Atlas Shrugged, Lord of the Rings, and your speech may all be worth sitting through all the extra verbiage, subplots, and special effects. But unless you only speak to people willing to join your movement or wear Hobbit robes, learn to edit your speeches before your audiences put you and your message on the shelf gathering dust.


  1. Thanks for a great post Rich. This is such a vital point that even seasoned professionals often forget.
    When British household name, Victoria Wood - incredibly popular and prolific comedien, playwright, musician - was asked what her most valuable skill was, on a TV special, she thought for a moment and replied (I paraphrase) "I know how to use the red pencil. It might be my best line, but if it doesn't advance the piece, I don't think twice, it's out." I have never forgotten that lesson - even if I struggle to apply it!

  2. As Garr Reynold's in Presentation Zen states over and over; 'Less is More.'

    Nice post.




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