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Home arrow Opinion arrow Jeff Petersen: ON SECOND THOUGHT arrow Short speech has long life


Short speech has long life

Maybe the world would be a better place if we were all forced to Twitter.

Especially politicians giving speeches.

According to my crack research team, led by Mattie the calico cat, Twitter now limits tweets to 140 characters.

There’s not much room to be rambling. Bombastic. Palaverous. Dull. Windy. Meandering. Tweeters get to the point and then get out of Dodge.

In this, the 150th anniversary month of President Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, the best short speech ever at 272 words, it’s important to remember the value of brevity. But there are limits. Lincoln started his speech with “four score and seven years ago.” He could have said “87,” and saved four words, but he would have gotten into his speech too soon. It would have lost its rhythm.

Probably the U.S. record for longest, most unrhythmic speeches was set by Sen. Ted Cruz , R-Texas, with his verbose prattling in the “filibuster” opposing Obamacare earlier this fall. Cruz spoke on the Senate floor for 21 hours and 19 minutes, which broke the old mark set by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): 12 hours, 52 minutes in his filibuster against CIA director nominee John Brennan.

The world mark is even longer. Stewart Stevenson’s speech of 23 hours and 51 minutes may not have had “Braveheart’ moments, but it does hold the record for the longest speech in the Scottish Parliament in a country known for its wind.

Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” speech had gone on for 24 hours. The audience would have started having nightmares.

What if Richard Milhous Nixon’s “Checkers” speech had gone on for 24 hours? Even his little black and white spotted cocker spaniel dog would have went to sleep.

Imagine if acceptance speeches went on that long. Greer Garson, accepting the Best Actress award for “Mrs. Miniver” in 1943, gave the longest acceptance speech in Academy Awards history. The next year the powers that be capped the length acceptance speeches could be. Some remember her speech being as long as 20 minutes, but it was really only 5-1/2 minutes of glory for the speaker — and agony for the audience.

Lincoln may hold the title for the best speech ever. But it wasn’t the shortest. On March 4, 1793, George Washington gave his second inaugural address in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia. It remains the shortest inaugural address in history at only 135 words. Basically he said it was an honor and a privilege to be the country’s Chief Magistrate. Then he started looking for the exit signs.

Some people who write letters to the editor worry they cannot say their piece in 300 words. I beg to differ. They can say their piece, and reach a lot more readers, by being succinct.

Does this mean you have to use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs? That everything is in the old children’s book “See Jane run” vein?

Not at all. Lincoln’s last sentence of the Gettysburg Address checked in at a windy 81 words. But that’s OK. It was in perfect control the whole way. A masterpiece of communication.

All men may be created equal. But not all speech-givers.

As the late great basketball coach John Wooden said, “I’ve given hundreds of talks over the years. One thing I’ve learned is that the most popular speaker is often the person who follows, ‘Thank you for that nice introduction’ by saying soon afterward, ‘So, in conclusion ...’

Thank goodness for people like Wooden. Thank goodness, too, for Lincoln, who said “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Ah, contraire, Mr. Lincoln. Your 272 words will live forever.

Contact Jeff Petersen at 541-963-3161 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Follow Jeff on Twitter @lagrandenewsGo.


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