5 Tricks to Avoid Becoming a Longtalker

By Dan Parrish, C.S.C.

Who among us doesn’t enjoy listening to a splendid speaker?  Especially if she has a unique perspective on something we care about, we will go to great lengths to put ourselves in her audience.  History is full of stories of great orators inspiring listeners throughout time: from the Parthenon to Gettysburg to the Lincoln Memorial.  Though each of us has certainly attended numerous inspiring presentations, we have also unfortunately encountered that most frustrating and bewildering of phenomena: the windbag who won’t shut up.  Or, to put it more politely, the speaker who runs over.

In a recent blogpost for the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Perlmutter considered “When Professors Profess Too Much” (http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/12/10/when-professors-profess-too-much/).  He asked, “So what explains the phenomenon of ‘speaker runover?’  Why is it so common?  What can be done to stop it?  More perplexingly, should it be stopped?”  

Because I sympathize with Mr. Perlmutter’s helplessness, especially in being held captive by audacious academics, and due to what can only be described as a personal mission to evangelize longtalkers (not-so-distant cousins to closetalkers), I am sharing 5 tricks for avoiding the longtalker pitfall.

1. Scholar, know thyself.  In the Gospel of Luke we read a pericope (which is a fancy scripture scholar word for ‘story’) about Jesus teaching in a Nazareth synagogue.  Those gathered to listen to him expect him to perform some of the miracles they have heard he was doing in other places.  He replies to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum'” (Luke 4:23).  Jesus claims he is unable to perform miracles there because he is not accepted by the people (who lack faith), and thus illustrates an important point: good speaking and presenting begins with good self-knowledge.  The audience that gathers to listen to you believes that you have something important to offer (or they may be hostages hoping to receive course credit after a semester being subjected to your longtalking.)  Non-longtalkers know themselves well and work with their strengths and weaknesses in preparing appropriate talks.  This allows them to structure their presentations to take up only the allotted time and no more.

2. Just say no.  Nancy Reagan was onto something with her anti-drug campaign for children.  Though I cannot comment on the slogan’s effectiveness for keeping kids clean, the ability to say no has a clear effect for individuals and organizations.  Saying no is one of the most important management principles for the most successful electronics company of the present day, Apple.  In a 2010 Q&A session, then-COO Tim Cook told an audience, “We say no to good ideas every day in order to keep the amount of things we focus on very small.”  Apple makes well over $100 billion annually with a portfolio of products that all fit on one table.  Is it any wonder why LG and Samsung mobile phones have historically been so miserable to use, when they are made by companies that also sell microwaves and refrigerators (these companies have only recently begun producing more elegant phones by copying Apple’s design principles.)  No speaker can cover everything in any one presentation.  Effective speakers keep saying no to possible ideas until they have pared their presentations down to the appropriate length and focus.  Longtalkers . . . well, they just don’t know how to say no.

3. Stay on target . . .  Though he didn’t know it at the time, Davish “Pops” Krail–probably better known to you and me by the call sign Gold Five–a pilot involved in the final assault on the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was actually pronouncing one of the most important tricks for being an effective speaker: stay on target.  One of the main reasons so many fall victim to longtalking is that they simply get off track and end up wandering about in the wilderness of their minds.  Most academics are bright individuals and have thoughts and opinions on a broad range of topics (probably a broader range of both topics and opinions than is warranted by their training . . .).  But for all of their expertise, many scholar-presenters forget the basic fact that each speaking opportunity is bounded by factors such as time, topic, audience, and location.  Tangents are almost never helpful to the listener, and they usually disrupt whatever consistency of message the speaker had worked up.  It takes some humility to recognize that you don’t have all day (and neither do your listeners!) to comment on every topic that occurs to you.  Good speakers know that by sticking to what they have prepared they will stay on target and deliver a much more meaningful (and much shorter) message. 

4. Practice, practice, practice.  Practice is not only the only way to get yourself to Carnegie Hall, it is the way to prepare well for a presentation of any size.  I have found over the years that when I speak without notes I get many more compliments afterwards.  I can only guess that I connect better with people when I am not tied to a text or hiding behind a podium.  And I enjoy speaking without a text much more.  However, I think most people misunderstand how much work it is to free oneself from a written text.  The reason it looks effortless when someone speaks without notes is probably because he or she is either a) simply brilliant and able to recall information at will, or, much more likely, b) well-rehearsed.  In my own case, if I am speaking ‘off the cuff’ it means that I have rehearsed the completed talk from start to finish at least 5-7 times.  This results in something very close to memorization–I know where I am in the talk, I know what is coming next, and I even know which words will get me from here to there.  During the intense preparation I also time the talk so that I can make appropriate adjustments.  Good speaking doesn’t just happen–it is only achieved by rolling up one’s sleeves and working on it.

5. Be flexible.  If you have read this far, you can probably tell that I attribute most of the sin of longtalking to the lack of preparation and discipline of the longtalker himself.  If he had simply put a bit more effort into his presentation, and if he just stuck to his notes, we wouldn’t be sitting next to him on the dais wondering if our turn to speak will ever come.  So, where is the room for flexibility in my argument?  Mr. Perlmutter states it well, “I wish I could have it both ways: Great trains that always run on time, and creativity unfettered.”  While I will always err on the side of preparation and ending on time, it is thrilling to be in the presence of someone who is passionate about her work and excited to share it.  And there should be room for flexibility and creativity in a presentation.  To the passionate and creative speaker: I will be happy to give you my undivided attention . . . but only until the bell rings.

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