Less is more.

That’s the single most important public speaking rule of thumb.  When speakers make mistakes, it’s most often because they try to cram too much data into their talks, because they try to make too many points about the subject, or because they try to tell the audience everything they know about the issue at hand.

In delivery, speakers don’t pause enough, typically.  They want to fill that apparently awkward silence with noise, so they keep talking, and add fillers words and “ums” when they should just be quiet.  Pausing allows time for your point to land, for the audience to understand what you’re saying, and for the puzzled to ask questions.

When you’re connecting with an audience, you must connect with them on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.  That means simplifying and reducing your emotions to the two or three that are most important to the arc of the talk and focusing on those.  Get rid of the extraneous emotions – the nerves, the anxiety, the fight-or-flight worries, the stuff that’s on your mind – and instead focus on the one, two, or three emotions that matter the most to the story you’re telling and to the audience.  Take the audience on a simple emotional journey as well as an intellectual one.

I’ve been working with a client on a three-minute speech for a speaking contest, and when we began we were both struggling with how little you can say in three minutes.  But as we worked on refining the point of the talk, and reducing the story to its essential, cutting out all the excess detail, we found that you can say a surprising amount in that time.

It’s about 400 hundred words, and while that doesn’t allow time for much detail, it does allow time for a story arc, a problem and a solution, and a life-changing insight to share with the audience.

Many studies show that people don’t remember much of what they hear in speeches.  So less is more.  Less detail, less extraneous emotion, fewer words, more silence.

Get that deep in your bones and you’ll find your speaking improving rapidly.


  1. Hi again Nick,

    A characteristically great post.

    Here’s what the poet Taylor Mali had to say about this: “”People are afraid that silence will make them sound stupid. So they fill it with something that’s guaranteed to make them sound stupid.”



    1. Hi Maureen – what a great quote and so true. Had a look at your site the career clinic and it looks amazing, off to itunes to download the podcast as well. Great to connect through public works. Best wishes Pete Billingham

    2. Thanks, Maureen — always good to hear from you. And what a wonderful quote. I’ve got a couple of clips of Taylor Mali that I use with clients to show great storytelling…..

  2. There’s a great series of books as well as a show on NPR & Sirius Radio called, ‘This I Know’. The books are compilation of individual’s stories which were submitted to be read by the author on the show. The requirement’s for submission are:

    * Limit your essay to approximately 500 words
    * Tell a story that illustrates how your personal belief was shaped
    * Refrain from writing an opinion piece about a public issue – Want the story of your belief, not an editorial about a current event
    * Tell what you do believe, not what you don’t believe.

    In reading, this is about 3.5 min in length. It’s a great exercise for writing / creating a speech. I’m attempting to make the majority of my blog posts fall inside the 500 word rule. Amazing how many fillers we use but how important it is to remove. Take the Hemingway approach…if you can remove a word and still makes sense, lose it.

    Good stuff Nick per usual.

    1. Thanks, Randall, for the comment and the insight into “This I know.” Hemingway is smiling down from somewhere on you….It’s a boozy smile, perhaps, but he’s smiling.

  3. And to add to Maureens quote, Lincoln had a great one on the subject as well.

    “It’s better to remain quiet and appear stupid than to open ones mouth and remove all doubt.”

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