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Chapter 6: Fault #3: Too Much Information


No speech can be entirely bad, if it is short enough.

- Irving S. Cobb

In workshops, when I ask, "too much information is...?" and open it up to the audience, everyone answers "BORING."

Faced with an expectant audience, speakers feel they have to provide as much detailed information as they can. This overabundance of information makes some speakers feel secure, and soon becomes their security blanket.

This love of information is understandable; as a country, we have been programmed toward overabundance - more is best. Not so with speeches. Although your speech should be rich in examples and illustrations, it should be thin in facts, figures, and lists. This is especially true for technical presentations, which tend to be overloaded with information.

Watch out for Multiplying Facts

Facts are seemingly reassuring. They back our assertions and give us ground to stand on. Worried speakers gather them for many reasons, not realizing abundance is harmful to a speech, because it's a lot easier to compile data than to make them interesting. Some speakers use facts to back up their claims, thinking that the more information the audience gets, the more believable and compelling the speech will be. They use facts to give speeches an objective - and therefore a powerful - tone. Other speakers feel the audience needs to know a lot and pile facts and lists into a speech in an attempt to give people their "money's worth."

However well intentioned, both approaches are misguided and work against both the speaker and the audience. Audience overload occurs surprisingly quickly. People retain three or four main points - nicely illustrated and explained - better than they do myriad bits of supporting information. Instead of bolstering your audience, excess facts just bog the audience down.

But the fact problem goes even deeper. An abundance of data is not the best support for your argument. Anyone can read a list of facts; your job is to make that information interesting, to give your viewpoint, using your own style and voice. Audiences don't want sheer objectivity: They want your interpretation.

Don't Dodge the Spotlight

Remember that you have been invited to speak for reasons that have nothing to do with your research abilities. You have something unique to say on the subject, some special angle.

My first job was teaching very bright high-school kids. I was a nervous wreck, because I figured that they were so much smarter than I was, which was undoubtedly true. I studied and studied before each class and ran a losing battle trying to stay ahead of them.

At the time, I didn't realize that I knew enough about the subject; I already had enough information. What I needed to do was make that information interesting and meaningful to students. They may have had more intelligence, but I had the experience to translate the facts vividly. Once I realized they were there to hear my interpretation of the subject, I was fine.

Don't Let Data Equal Boredom

Even speeches that don't overload on information can be accused of having too much - if that information isn't interpreted in an interesting way. Granted, it's a lot easier to give information than to look for ways to make it interesting and useful. (But no one said giving a speech was easy.)

The major fault in technical presentations is relying on the hard-core technical data to carry the day, and having too much of it. Everyone - scientists included - wants a presentation that doesn't throw findings at him but interprets facts and weaves a story. Almost all of the technical presentations I have seen needed their information reduced by half and their visual aids simplified.

Humanize and personalize your data. After my son took a college course on military history, I asked him what struck him as the most interesting thing he had learned. He said he was amazed by how long it took soldiers to load the early guns and how difficult they were to fire. He saw the data presented to him in terms of human consequences. Let your audiences do the same by presenting your facts in a human context.

It's also very easy to make false assumptions about the level of data appropriate for your audience. For example, in talks to upper management, speakers feel they can fill speeches with technical information, because the audience is at such a high level. In fact, by the time people get to upper management, the skills they wield are generalists' skills; they are no longer as knowledgeable of the technical details as the technicians below them.

Power Through Condensation

If you embroider your facts with the stories and support that will make them memorable, chances are you will have too much to say. Condensing a speech you've worked hard on into the allotted time may seem cruel, unusual, and impossible. But it's necessary. When you take time to condense your speech, your audience is much more likely to listen to what you say, because long-windedness leads to repetition and lack of focus.

It takes time and thought to condense everything you know about a subject into a few highly refined major points. Woodrow Wilson, the last president to write his own speeches, was once asked how long it took him to prepare a 10-minute speech. "Two weeks," he said. And how long for an hour's talk? "One week." And for a two-hour presentation? "Oh," he said, "I'm ready now."

Rules to Speak By

In my speech classes, I give what seems like a simple assignment: Prepare a three-minute speech on any topic that interests you. That's only enough time for about 450 words. When these speeches are delivered, almost no one finishes in the allotted time.

The problem is that most people have a very unrealistic idea of what they can say in a short period of time. And if people overload three minutes to such an extent, imagine what they will do with a 20-minute speech! Everyone tries to fit in too much or tries to talk faster as they realize they are running out of time. This time trap points out a key to a powerful speech or presentation: Practice - and time - your delivery. Even though the only way to really see if your speech fits a time limit is to practice it, here are some guidelines for length you can use before you write: If your speech should be 20 minutes, figure on covering four major points; 30 minutes leaves you room for five points; and a one-hour speech allows you to work in eight major points.

After your speech is written, you can check for time by counting words. We speak at approximately 150 words per minute. Therefore, if you count the number of words in your speech, and add a minute or two for audience reaction, you should come up with a rough estimate of how long your speech will be. Of course, the best way to estimate is to time yourself while you practice, but counting words can let you know if you're way over (or way under) before you even begin.

These limits make it sound like you don't have a lot of time and room - and you don't. It's staying power that you're after, and that means limiting yourself and choosing your main points with care.

Respect Your Audience's Limits

An audience reaches its limit a lot faster and sooner than most speakers think. The average attention span is only eight seconds. People forget 25 percent of what they hear within 24 hours, 50 percent within 48 hours, and 80 percent in four days. Not long ago, audiences had an attention span of 3.5 minutes. Today that span has shrunk to about 2.5 minutes. That's one reason we now have less time (and less show) between commercials on television.

Your words of wisdom will be competing with people's thoughts of what they did that day, what assignment is due tomorrow, and whether anyone's home to walk the dog. Being brief and concise isn't just polite, it's effective. And it helps you avoid the speaker's ultimate curse: being boring.

Professional Projects: Practice Editing
  1. Select an article or editorial from your local paper. Condense it into one short paragraph. Be sure to get the main point across.

  2. Take out your last 20-minute presentation. Imagine you are the last speaker of the day and have only five minutes to deliver it. Jot down the key points you will make and what you can eliminate.

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