How Long should a Speech be?

Speeches are of different kinds, consequently, their lengths differ as well. For instance, 1 – 2 minutes for an impromptu speech, while giving a toast at a birthday party or a wedding. On the other hand, speeches in TED talks usually make people lose interest if they go beyond 15 – 18 minutes. And speeches for political or motivational purposes might as well go up to 20 minutes. The length of a speech should be such that delivers the message to the audience but conversely, keeps them engaged and entertained as well.

Before giving a speech, you should always question yourself about what should be the length of your speech. If you ever get perplexed about how many words should be there in your speech or how quickly you should wind it up, you need not worry. Because this article will help you in bidding farewell to this confusion and making you an effective orator. So, READ ON.

Lengths of different speeches

A speech is delivered to influence and persuade the audience. Moreover, an effective speaker has quality content and is not at all dependent on the quantity of the speech. 

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

Winston Churchill

It is quite significant to understand the disparate types of speeches and the appropriate amount of words or time to be consumed in each one of them. For you to comprehend easily, the speeches have been categorised as per their reasonable lengths.

1. Impromptu speeches

Imagine sitting in your office or at a party, minding your own business, and suddenly someone comes up to you and inform you that you will have to say a few words as a replacement for someone else, what would be your reaction? It would surely be frightening and it would put you in an awkward place. 

However, these kinds of situations should not make you panic. Because impromptu speeches should not be more than 1 – 2 minutes i.e. approximately 150 – 350 words. These are very short speeches for maybe giving an update about a project at the office, expressing your feelings about your friend at his wedding, addressing the audience as a politician or talking about a general topic at school in a JAM (Just A Minute) session.

For example, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 2 minutes with 272 words

Read the full speech here: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Another greatest example of an impromptu speech is given by Bernie Sanders at Town Hall hosted by CNN.

“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

Mark Twain

Go through this article for more insights: 1-minute speech

2. Extemporaneous speeches

There might be some times when you get the time to prepare and practice your speech, these are known as extemporaneous speeches. These speeches are not memorised or read from the manuscripts. Hence, they ought to be of no more than 5 – 8 minutes i.e. approximately 600 – 1000 words.

Furthermore, this type is usually used in politics, business, education, religious sermons or preachings etc. For instance, an introductory speech for the guest of honour, a speech for a special occasion, a tributary speech etc. The speaker gets enough time to research, outline, prepare and practice the speech. Therefore, it could prove to be a success for a person as an orator because it delivers the message and amazes the audience in just a time range of 5 to 8 minutes. 

Kayla Kearney is one such example. She is a 17-year-old student who came out as a lesbian and delivered a speech at her high school assembly on the theme, “Time to break the silence”. She spoke for 8 minutes quite confidently without reading or referring to her notes because her words were in control of her. Moreover, she spoke about her personal opinions as it was her own story.

Kayla Kearney
"This speech will change my life forever -- but I hope my words can change more. I feel the need to stand in front of all of you to tell you that I am gay because I want to break the silence. Facing this reality was the most challenging thing I have ever had to do in my entire life simply because I knew that for the rest of my life I was going to face a world that told me I was wrong."

Another example is Winston Churchill‘s speech, “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat”, which comprised 688 words and was completed in only 5 minutes

3. Manuscripts 

These speeches are not memorised or impromptu but conversely, they are read by the speaker or orator. This kind is mostly used in political settings by politicians as their main motive is only to grab their audience’s attention and influence them. Moreover, it is also practised by motivational speakers or activists for campaigns. 

One of the greatest examples of a motivational speaker in this category is Martin Luther King Jr., whose speech, “I have a dream” is still acknowledged and is an inspiration for the people. 

In addition, these speeches are pre-planned and are practised thoroughly. For instance, the speaker would already know how and when the audience will react and he would pause at that point for their applause. This kind of speech is prepared quite meticulously as it is only a matter of words. As a result, these speeches are usually long, about 10 – 15 minutes or at the most 20 minutes, i.e. approximately 1200 – 2400 words.

Another example is John F. Kennedy who delivered a speech, “Why go to the Moon?” at Rice University, the USA in 1962. It was a 15 minutes speech that influenced the audience on the need for exploration.

4. TED talk

It is the biggest and greatest platform for public speaking. It is quite impactful because some orators share their personal stories or viewpoints, and some share factual matters with the audience. Moreover, one of the major reasons for its success is the time limit they have set for their presenters. TED believes that a short talk requires the attention of the audience for a short period of time, therefore, the TED presenters can only speak for up to 18 minutes

“18 minutes is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.”

Chris Anderson (TED curator)

For example, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, delivered a 15 minutes speech on “Why we have too few women leaders”. This speech inspired a considerable number of women to lean in and step up as leaders. 

Another great example is Simon Sinek, who delivered his 18 minutes speech on “How great leaders inspire action”. Through this speech, many leaders acquired his “Start with why” movement, which was transformational. 

How to be productive with time constraints in a speech

“A tight five is better than a sloppy fifteen”

A famous saying in standup comedy

1. Prepare and practice

Prepare the length of speech

A good input always produces good output. Therefore, to be an effective speaker, it is important to make a plan and outline for your speech. Moreover, practising it, again and again, would make you comfortable with the words and make your speech delivery look effortless. 

Especially, the lesser time you have to speak, the more practice and preparation it requires. Once a cabinet member asked Woodrow Wilson about the time it took to prepare his speeches. He replied, “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; for fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

2. Keep improvising

“Brevity is levity”

William Shakespeare

It is important to have a concise speech. Keep practising and refining the speech until it only includes the best and most impactful points and personal stories. The speech ought to be of a reasonable time duration that keeps the audience engaged till the end. Also, modern-day audiences always have other matters to attend to.

The speech ought to be humorous, informative, short and engaging. You should be able to deliver the message to the audience within a short period because as time goes by, listeners tend to forget the sloppy details. As per research, after a speech, only 50 per cent is remembered by the listeners. However, only 25 per cent are remembered by the next day. And after a week later, only 10 per cent is remembered by the listeners. 

3. Always set a time limit even if there isn’t one

It is always a good idea to have a time limit for your speech before you start preparing for it. Because as you start writing the speech, you would have in mind to only include the significant points and examples in it. Moreover, you would not waste both your and the audience’s time.

In addition, if you feel that your speech is too short, it is not a problem. In other words, if the audience wants to hear more from you, it is never a bad thing. It means that you have proven to be an effective orator. 

Set time limit to maintain the length of a speech

4. Try to give your best shot

It is always better to speak only what you have prepared. Do not try to make on the spot changes to your speech, whether adding something new or deleting something from the script. 

In addition, speak only for the time for which you have prepared. For example, if you prepared a speech of 10 minutes and the organisers or audience asks you to exceed the time, then do not try to do the same but conversely, deny them politely. Only give your best performance and it is not always a bad idea to make the audience want more.

Read this article for more useful information: 11 steps to help you keep time during your presentation

Words in different lengths of speeches

Length (in minutes)Words
1 minute150 – 200
2 minutes250 – 350
5 minutes600 – 700
10 minutes1200 – 1300
15 minutes1800 – 1900
30 minutes3600 – 3700
45 minutes5400 – 5500
60 minutes7200 – 7300
*As per 120 WPM (Words per Minute) of reading speed

Types of speeches and their lengths

Types of SpeechesLength (in minutes)
1.Impromptu speech1 – 2
2.Motivational speech5 – 10
3.Entertaining speech< 5
4.Informative speech10
5.Demonstrative speech2 – 5
6.Persuasive speech2 – 5
7.Oratorical speech< 10

Differences between speeches of disparate lengths

Short speeches
(Less than 20 minutes)
Long speeches
(More than 20 minutes)
1.Short speeches are successful in grabbing the audience’s attention.Long speeches are quite influential and powerful for the audience.
2.They are impactful as they include personal stories and viewpoints.Mostly long speeches have a considerable amount of examples and personal stories which makes a topic more comprehensible for the audience.
3.They are concise and include to the point matter and examples.They have the power to inform, instruct and entertain the audience.
4.They do not include any unnecessary details, like mentioning more than 2 examples of the same point.They mostly include a lot of data and facts which occasionally surge its length. Sometimes, there are repetitions of points in them.
5.They are intriguing and do not seem boring to the audience. They ought to be kept within 45 mins otherwise, they can be monotonous and can make the audience weary by the end.
6.Some examples of short speeches are:
(i) Steve Jobs‘ 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University (15 minutes)
(ii) Barak Obama‘s 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address (17 minutes)
Various examples of long speeches are:
(i) EU speech of Josè Manuel Durão Barroso, President of the European Commission (75 minutes)
(ii) Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez‘s speech (570 minutes)
Length of a speech determines its impact

Final words

The length of the speech depends on the type of speech one intends to deliver. However, an orator should keep his speech as short as possible which would both deliver the message and engage the audience. It is completely wrong to contemplate that public speaking is not related to time. On the contrary, time is the most valuable asset of public speaking. Hence, to become an effective speaker, one should plan and prepare to deliver a speech within 20 minutes

Furthermore, always think about your audience first before writing your speech. Because it would not prove to be outstanding on your part if you keep holding the audience or in simple words, outstay your presence. It should be your only motive to be memorable and sound confident in front of the audience, instead of being lousy and mundane.

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