Imagine that you are at an online event. You’re at a fundraiser for a nonprofit. Great speakers filled the evening but it’s 6:50 PM and the event should end at 7:00 PM. The last speaker comes on and promises, “I won’t take too long.” The speaker starts…it’s then 7:05 PM…7:10 PM…“I’m just finishing up…” Ugh.
At one point you may have been that speaker or have sat through something similar. The speaker did not change their speech’s length. And they didn’t take into account their spot in the program even though they should have in advance.
In the previous chapter, we focused on the goals of your toast and brainstormed some initial ideas. We came up with those answers without worrying about time limits. But now, to help better plan your speech, you’ll need a target time to speak and word count for your final text.
Before you begin to write your toast, you should know your speech’s length and your role at the event. These two fundamental elements will help you plan your toast and handle any unforeseen issues on the day of the event. When you know how much time you have, you can alter the content of your speech to fit the occasion. You will know what to do if a speaker runs over their time or another part goes long.
Figuring out your speech’s length:
The average speaking rate of most people is 140 words per minute; but, it can vary to the low 130s or high 150s. For our purposes, to get an accurate starting point, we’ll assume 140 words per minute.
Take the amount of time that your speech should be and multiply that by 140. If you have a range, say 5-7 minutes to speak, multiply the lower and upper parts of that range by 140.
For a 5-7 minute speech, that puts you at 700 words to 980 words.
What if you do not have a specified time limit?
You can always ask the event organizer how much time you have to speak. If you cannot get a clear answer, start with 5-7 minutes and work your way up or down depending on the answers in the next section.
Why does my role at the event determine how long I should speak?
The general rule is that if your role is more important or earlier in the program, you can speak longer.
For that first part, imagine you’re the guest graduation speaker, the father of the bride, or the award recipient. You’ll receive more time if you want it for your speech and can err on the side of a longer speech than most others.
But, let’s say that you are someone who is not slated to give a toast but you want to be one of the people who gives a short speech. In that case, err on the shorter side, around 3 minutes as an example.
Also, consider where you are in the program. The person who speaks first can use all their allotted time. The person who speaks last or right before a lunch or dinner break should err on the shorter side. Their audience will be getting antsy, and it’s likely that the previous speakers went over their allotted time.
How to cut your toast’s length
Cut the number of stories:
If you planned on telling three stories, tell the most important one instead.
Cut the number of sections:
If you use a topical organization such as, “7 Lessons I learned when I failed my first acting gig,” cut those topics down to the top three or one.
Ditch the acknowledgments:
Some acknowledgment sections (recognizing the VIPs) go on for far too long. Cut this section and you’ll make your toast shorter.
Plan out your shorter speech:
You can also plan this out by using the word count calculation guide from earlier.
If you have 7 minutes allotted, what would a 3-minute speech look like?
About 420 words (140 words X 3 minutes).
Keep the main message and fit it into the shorter time allotted. That also helps when editing and we’ll discuss that in later chapters.
1. Will 5-7 minutes work for the speech you’re giving? Do you need to go shorter than that depending on your place within the event? Can you go longer (if you want)?
2. Multiply the amount of time you expect to speak by 140—that’s your target word count.
3. Is there anything that could happen that would shorten your speech? If so, can you prepare with a shorter version in mind?
By this point, a few chapters in, you should have the following:
1. A word and minute count for your toast
2. Initial ideas for what you want to say
3. A plan for a shorter speech
Speeches come together one piece at a time and each chapter is a building block. Now let’s discuss the structure you’ll use along with a few examples.
More in this series:
Chapter 1: Toast Goals: Honor the person, honor the event
Chapter 2: How long should your toast be?