I'll Bring the Hot Dogs!

I once had a student who was stuck. She was supposed to speak in a speech round starting on Friday, and she came to me on Wednesday complaining that she couldn’t get started. She had come up with about a minute’s worth of material.

“What are you trying to develop a topic on?” I asked.

“The history of the United States,” she said.

You have GOT to be kidding.

Did I mention this was for a three- to five-minute speech?

I sighed, and said, “I think you need to narrow it down a bit. Try that, and come back later.”

She came back an hour later. “How about the history of Kentucky? It’s still only taking about a minute, though.”

The problem with going so broad is that in the allotted time you can’t go into any depth. You wind up giving summaries rather than specifics, and may actually go short. While it’s mostly true that no one ever complains about a speech being too short, people certainly do complain about being bored, and summaries tend to do that.

“I think you still need to narrow it down,” I said.

“How will that help if I can’t even get a minute out of Kentucky? I thought about doing the history of Calloway County, but there’s no entry in Encyclopedia Britannica for it.”

I admit it, I lost patience. I said, “Look, I want you to go downtown, pick out a building, and do a speech about the brick in the upper left-hand corner!”

Since she was pretty sure there was nothing like that in Britannica, she went downtown, picked out a building, and sat on the curb trying to figure out how to get a speech out of it.

She saw people going in and out of the building, and noticed one guy who kept doing so. She struck up a conversation with him and found out he owned the building, and that his great-grandfather had built the building from bricks made by hand just outside of town. He showed her old pictures and told her stories about the building’s history and its place in local events.

This incident happened in the late 1970s, and I honestly don’t remember details of the speech. (There’s a lot of the 70s I don’t remember.) I do remember she had no problems filling the minimum–in fact, she went overtime, and the class hung on every word because she had dug up such interesting stories.

When you have trouble pulling a speech together, stop worrying about filling your time. Narrow your focus, and dig deep. That doesn’t mean condense your material; it means slice it, and use your time to develop depth for that narrow slice. It’s easier for the speaker, it holds the audience’s attention better, and it makes the speech more interesting and more useful.

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