There's an iron limit to how long people will listen. Respect it.
'm a preacher's kid from the rural South.
I spent my Sunday mornings (and Sunday nights, and Wednesday evenings, and summer Bible School mornings) in the pews, listening to my dad. One Sunday, I remember my dad preaching with such intensity I know they felt it two churches over.
And right in the middle, he stopped. He looked around, smiled, then picked up a hymnal. “Let’s sing our closing song, page 211…,” he said, and we did.
A half-hour later at lunch, I asked him why he had stopped like that. “Twenty minutes,” dad said.
“What do you mean?”
“Twenty minutes is the absolute limit anybody can listen,” he told me. “After twenty minutes, I could have said that I was about to announce the date, time, and location of the second coming of Jesus Christ and there would have been a little old lady in the back saying, ‘That’s nice, Brother Larry, but I have a pot roast in the oven.’”
Years later I was talking with Bob Lehrman, the dean of Washington speechwriters. I asked him if he thought 20 minutes was the limit. “Of course, it’s 20 minutes,” he said. “Who in the world would think otherwise?”
Most speechwriters who have thought about it say the same thing: once a speaker goes past 20 minutes, the audience has exhausted its energy for paying attention. That’s not to say speakers don’t go beyond 20 minutes anyway, or that some of them don’t succeed at it – or that my dad should have stopped mid-homily. But 20 minutes appears pretty much hardwired in human beings.
As a communications pro friend of mine, Dana Rubin, reminds me, “Listening is hard.” Think about it. You’re in a less-than-comfortable chair, sitting up straight, crammed in among other people in the same situation. There’s no polite way to distract yourself with your phone or laptop. You certainly can’t read something. Often, you can’t even take notes. You have to sit there formal and poised looking interested even if you’re not.
I’d say 20 minutes is the outside limit for that, wouldn’t you?
Once a listener's patience runs out, more talk from you won't bring it back.
Once a listener's patience runs out, continuing to talk erases whatever you had achieved with them.
Compounding the problem are speakers – and this is most of them – who fail to remember the burden of paying close attention for a long period of time. It’s exciting to stand in front of an audience and have them listen to everything you say. It’s also easy to imagine that this captive audience will be enthralled by every word that crosses your mind, and difficult to remember that what they want most is to get what you have to say and then get out.
Even worse, once the listener’s patience runs out, affection and tolerance don’t just fade. They boomerang into hostility, erasing whatever progress you made with them. Think how you feel when you’re stuck in a waiting room in the middle of your own demanding day. After you’re waited, say, 20 minutes, your first instinct isn’t to cheerfully tolerate an extension. You’re frustrated, even angry at what feels like an inconsiderate indulgence of your time.
Few speeches, few speakers, and few occasions remain compelling for very long. Respect the built-in and very human time limit not as a suggestion but as a brick wall.
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