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Journalism of Courage

Free Speech: The gentle art of lecturing

Except, for a generation that has notoriously short attention spans, one has to wonder if 56 minutes also isn’t 20 minutes too long to hold forth, even for one of the most enigmatic leaders of the world

PM Narendra Modi addressing the nation on Independence Day from the Red Fort (Express Photo)

After delivering the longest Independence Day speech in the history of India in 2016 (96 minutes), Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his shortest speech since being elected, this year, at 56 minutes. In his radio address last month, Mann Ki Baat, the PM acknowledged that he had received letters from people complaining his speeches were too long. Except, for a generation that has notoriously short attention spans, one has to wonder if 56 minutes also isn’t 20 minutes too long to hold forth, even for one of the most enigmatic leaders of the world.

Unlike the India of old, it’s no longer so easy to drum up hordes of citizens to sit around patiently at political rallies, while garlanded leaders speak. Clearly people have better things to do with their time. Half-empty grounds don’t bode well, either for TV or the morale of the electorate. When it comes to sitting through speeches, only the very strong survive.

It is one of the few perks of adulthood, that they can mostly be avoided. In India, the word speech is a synonym for lecture and we all know what that means — you are going to be talked down to, and probably, be bored out of your mind. Students build character by yawning their way through youth — that time of life when you have no choice but to feign interest in what adults have to say.

My enduring memory of school is standing on a large open field under the burning sun for assembly every morning where the news, mostly a series of tragedies, were read out and discussed in sermonising tones. After the National Anthem, we shuffled single file to class, already exhausted at the beginning of the workday.

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Not much has changed since then. Even now schools have long assemblies where teachers and principals impart dramatic moral lessons to their captive young audience. Most teachers are not engaged in active reflection, on how to talk so students listen. The trick seems pretty simple though. Instead of droning on and on about a million different things, concentrate on a few specifics. If the kids leave with just a little new information to chew on, it’s an achievement.

Having said that, does anyone really take any notice of what anyone else says, other than in an off-hand superficial way, or change their original opinion because they’re so staggered by somebody’s very stirring speech? Hardly ever. Irrespective of how inspiring or entertaining a speaker is (rarely so) if it takes too long, the audience will tune out.

Scientists have worked out that people will listen for between 10 to 18 minutes, also the rule followed by all TedX Speakers. In fact most TED Talks, on heavy topics like dark matter and how life changes after surviving a plane crash are just five minutes, to keep people intellectually engaged.


Otherwise, the only speeches people actually really listen to, are the ones that have a shattering impact on their own lives. For example, no one complained that the PM’s speech was too long the day he announced demonetisation. The entire country was too busy trying to make sense of what appeared to be a surreal nightmare. That speech had a purpose, the PM a flair for drama, his voice alternately pitched high and low for maximum impact.

The best speeches encompass a mix of personal anecdote and unique experiences that can apply to humanity in general. Sometimes though, even the most erudite and delightful conversationalists get it wrong. Shah Rukh Khan, whether you’re a fan or no is always a pleasure to listen to, in interviews or when he’s hosting events.

He’s effortlessly eloquent but his May Ted talk on love, 18 minutes long, lacked spontaneity. He played it too safe, the message, if any, was ambiguous and only 102 viewers bothered to comment. That’s hardly commensurate with his huge number of fans. It’s true that matters of great substance rarely emerge in a speech and no single idea put forth is likely to change the world. But if it sets off a new chain of thought, that momentary illusion of clarity is good enough.


First published on: 21-08-2017 at 00:00 IST
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