Instead of the 15 minutes he was allotted, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya recently spoke for 96 minutes to UN delegates in New York. He discussed Somali pirates, the death of JFK, jet lag and swine flu conspiracy theories. He was ridiculed by the media and anyone within ear shot.
While lengthy, his debut speech to the UN was not the longest delivered to that organization. Fidel Castro once spoke for so long – four and half hours — that meal breaks were factored in. But it was nothing compared to his longest on record in Cuba, which lasted more than seven hours at the 1986 Communist Party Congress.
How come modern American audiences almost never have to suffer such interminable speeches? Democracy.
“You are only ever going to get long speeches when the speaker doesn’t have to worry about the audience running away,” says Robert Service, professor of Russian history at Oxford University. “At the UN Gaddafi was depending on the good manners of the people listening. But at home, it is more about the self-preservation of the audience.”
Soviet leaders, particularly in the 1930s, enjoyed orchestrated applause and ovations for their long-winded speeches because audience members feared getting arrested if they didn’t respond favorably.
Before the age of mass communications, the political elite i America made long, elegant speeches sprinkled with quotations from great men and books, to demonstrate their learning. But today, with so many distractions and information sources, it’s not a good idea.
So, if you give speeches – or any kind of presentation – and you want to avoid being ridiculed as Qaddaffi was in New York, keep it brief and to the point. Rule of thumb – 15-20 minutes, max. Remember, people can walk out, figuratively or literally, with no threat of arrest.