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Keep Your Speech Within Time Limits

An easy way to tighten a speech is to use short words with few syllables.

By Paul Jenkinson, CC


One thing speakers learn in Toastmasters is the importance of keeping within the allotted time for a speech. When you see the red signal, you should be at the conclusion of your talk. Keeping your speech within time is a courtesy to your audience and to other speakers. If this isn’t a compelling enough reason, consider this: If you exceed your time limit you will be disqualified from speech contests.

When you prepare a speech, you probably practice it by reading it out loud against the clock. If your speech takes too long you can edit the text. However, it can be difficult to know how much to cut, especially if you make big changes. Reading each new draft aloud against the clock is time consuming, and sometimes impractical (as when you are in a library or on the train). Fortunately, there is a quick, easy and silent way to estimate how long it will take to read a new draft.

The duration of a speech depends more on the number of syllables in the speech rather than the number of words. These numbers are only roughly correlated, since words can range from monosyllables like I and a to polysyllabic monsters like pneumoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (to cite an extreme example). Programs like Microsoft Word can tell you how many words your draft speech contains, but not how many syllables.

Fortunately, many syllable counters are available on the internet, including www.HowManySyllables.com, www.SyllableCounter.net and www.WordCalc.com. Here’s how to use a syllable counter to help you estimate the duration of your draft speeches:

First, take any piece of text and read it aloud at a comfortable pace and time yourself. When your allotted time is up, note how far you have read, then copy and paste only that portion of text into a syllable counter. The number of syllables in this text is the number of syllables that you can comfortably speak in the allotted time. Make a note of the number.

Now take the revised draft of your speech and paste it into the same syllable counter. Compare the number of syllables in your draft to your comfortable syllable number. If your draft has fewer syllables, you can afford to add longer pauses to your speech or even add a little more to it. However, if your draft has too many syllables you will need to cut it more ruthlessly. This does not necessarily mean that you have to cut the number of words. For example, replacing the word initiate, which has four syllables, with the word begin, which has two syllables, or even better with the one-syllable word start, will let you say the same thing in less time without having to speak any faster.

When you have a draft that has fewer syllables than your comfortable syllable number, it is worth practicing the new version aloud against the clock and fine-tuning it, as necessary.

One last thing to keep in mind: Find a syllable counter you enjoy using, but continue to use the same counter since different counters give slightly different results.