Keeping a speech short and sweet is one of the most difficult things to do, whether you are presenting in person or online. In fact, one of the main reasons why a business presentation fails is that the speaker runs out of time to go through all the material or exceeds the time limit.
It’s difficult to self-edit. It takes a great deal of time and focused attention to cut the excess and whittle down a speech or presentation. Naturally, you want your expertise to shine. But adding more content to your talk is not the way to do it. Less is more when your goal is to deliver a compelling, relevant, and effective presentation.
If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.French philosopher Blaise Pascal
I experience that burdensome task myself. A 50-slide deck gets whittled down to 30 during my practice sessions. The day before I conduct a workshop, I remove a handful more and distill my comments to what my audience truly needs to hear and see.
Cutting down to the core of what is most important is a concept that honors the power of simplicity and clarity.
Be sincere; be brief; be seated.Franklin D. Roosevelt
And legend has it that Ernest Hemingway won a bet by writing a six-word story– “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” The sad subtext here is that the child did not live to wear the shoes.
Brevity is a rhetorical device (think parallel structure, rule of three, metaphors, and many others) that helps captivate the listener by making your message more memorable. It’s been around since the time of Aristotle.
Top-50 business thinker Dorie Clark introduced me to the 27-9-3 Rule to craft short and persuasive messages. The rule was created by legislators in Vermont state government years ago. The process requires that you write a succinct message of no more than 27 words, delivered in nine (or 10) seconds, containing no more than three ideas. The structured brevity will help you focus on understanding just how to connect with your audience. It’s meant to be an appeal that stirs interest in your listeners to learn more and engage with your argument.
Let’s break it down.
27 words take from 9-10 seconds to say. You may want to have fewer than 27 to allow for your speaking style and more natural delivery.
Nine seconds is a sound bite. It’s a poignant nugget of information that stays in people’s memory. You hear sound bites on newscasts. Politicians and corporate spokespeople are trained to speak in sound bites for maximum persuasive ability and message clarity. In my workshops, I refer to 7-10 seconds as the timeframe to make an impression on someone. That’s strategic brevity because everyone knows that you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.
This alludes to the Rule of Threes and the way our brains process information through pattern recognition. Triplets are easier to remember because we have been accustomed to hearing them in fables and folk tales since childhood. The rule is a structural tool to create memorable phrases and build anticipation.
Here is an example I wrote to help illustrate it for you.
Climate catastrophes are costly. They’re twice as devastating for Florida’s waterfront. New building codes can change the fate of the 500,000 residential properties built along the shoreline.
There are 27 words in this example that take 10 seconds to speak. Each of the three sentences contains one important idea.
And here is another example inspired by Shark Tank winner Tara Williams:
Mothers struggle getting their babies to sleep. With the sleep sack and CoverCalm™ technology your baby will feel calm, fall asleep faster and sleep longer.
You will note that some sound bites may sound like advertising copy. For credibility, you should aim to speak your 27 words in a natural tone to express your authentic voice and establish a connection with your audience.
Where can you apply the 27-9-3 Rule? There’s no limit, but here are some suggestions.
- An opener to a presentation to management.
- An elevator pitch or Shark Tank appearance.
- An introduction to your company.
- An appeal or call to action at a community meeting.
Once you have created your 27-9-3 speech, you will need to practice it. Record yourself, play it back and analyze it for diction and vocal variety. Seek the feedback of friends and family. Commit it to memory and make it part of your speaker’s toolbox. It will serve you well.