If you love music, you have your favorite songs. If you love reading, you have your favorite books. As I love speaking, I have my favorite speeches – and many of them come from past editions of the World Championship of Public Speaking.
One of my evergreen favorites, that I almost know byheart, is the speech that won the competition in 2013: Changed by a Tire, by Pres Vasilev.
There are many reasons why I consider look at this speech as an example. As it often happens, one of them is that Pres Vasilev does something I struggle with: he uses short sentences and few words. His speech is one of the shortest in the history of the World Championship of Public Speaking, lasting slightly more than 6 minutes in a competition that allows from 4:30 to 7:30 minutes. Instead, I always struggle with time and tend to be verbose and contorted, to the point I lose myself – not to mention the audience. So, what can we all learn from Pres’s speech?
Replace words with other speech devices
Changed by a Tire proves how you can use speech devices, such as body language, to avoid using too many words in your storytelling. In general, we use movements to stress what we say, but they can even replace entire sentences. Let’s see a couple of examples where Pres could have used words, and that instead are much more effective without.
At 4:00, the scene changes. He could have described this with a sentence: “I left the car there and walked to the nearby gas station, looking for help”. Instead, he embraces the golden rule of show, don’t tell. He moves on the stage with long, intentional steps: the car remains on the left, the gas station appears on the right and we are immediately introduced to Jesse, the crucial character of this story. This purposeful movement replaces at least one sentence.
Knowing nothing about cars, I would need to describe the use of the jack – with the risk to become wordy and complicated. As we can see at 2:00, 2:56 and 3:09, Pres once again doesn’t lose time in useless words. He gives us a short demonstration of what happens with the jack, almost like projecting a video with a sound effect. This device proves even more useful at 4:44, when he doesn’t have to spend extra words to explain how fast Jesse lifts the car and changes the tire. This way, he saves time and attention for the Distinguished Jack-Master joke, that triggers another laugh from the audience.
Short sentences are easy to follow
In a speech that lasts around 6 minutes 10 seconds, I counted 74 sentences. (I considered a sentence every time I could imagine entering a period in the script.) On average, we’re talking about 5 seconds per sentence, disregarding the fact that Pres also uses some meaningful pauses. Five seconds: no surprise this speech is so easy to follow and to remember. Sometimes, in my scripts I catch myself using words so long that I need five seconds to pronounce them. Ouch.
Someone told me that being Italian doesn’t help in this: in my native language, it’s normal to use a lot of subordinate clauses, reformulating the same concept and adding optional details. We think that with more words we can explain ourselves better. Instead, long sentences don’t work in English and even less in public speaking, where the audience can’t to go back and re-read the text. To avoid that they get lost, we must opt for easier sentences – that can convey the concept without adding useless complexity. The last part of Pres’s speech, from 5:18, proves it. Even when he delivers his core message, he uses short sentences of maximum 11 words. This keeps the audience attention and allows them to understand each piece of information, before he moves on to the next one.
Even if I doubt I can embrace a 5-second limit immediately, I give myself a challenge for my next speeches: use shorter sentences. I will try to keep most of them under 10 words, and for no reason write sentences longer than one line. Will I succeed? Well, keep your fingers crossed… and I will update you soon on the outcomes of the experiment.
(Image by Paul Felberbauer on Unsplash)