Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Bill Clinton demos the public speaking 15-percent-less rule

The 15 percent less rule, a lifesaver for speeches and media interviews, is among the most-read posts on this blog, and I'm not surprised: It's the tactic I recommend most to speakers who routinely blow through their time limits and those who don't let the reporter get a word or question in edgewise during an interview. In that post, I used a famous example: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton:
It's said that former U.S. President Bill Clinton--famous for talking well past his assigned time slot, earlier in his career--has been able to rein himself in with what I call the "15 percent rule." The rule: You plan to fill 85 percent of the time allotted. 
That leaves 15 percent of your time as a cushion to ensure you don't exceed the limit. But the benefits go further, and Clinton uses it as time in which he can make an aside, or do some back-and-forth with the audience extemporaneously, based on where he feels the audience is emotionally, on the spot.
The genius of the rule is that it allows all that extemporaneous charm while still keeping you on time, the best of both worlds.

Recently, President Clinton gave remarks at a memorial service for Helmut Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany, and demonstrated the rule--but at the start of his speech, not at the end or midway. And he announces to the audience that he's doing it, perhaps to underscore the emotion he felt on the occasion.

I've had the speech transcribed here, but here are the beginning and the early off-the-cuff paragraph. And yes, the extemporaneous bit constitutes a little under 15 percent of the total.
Maike, thank you for giving the me opportunity to say a few words. Thank you to Peter, Walter, Helmut’s family.  To the leaders of Europe and the European Union, Chancellor Merkel, President Macron, other prime ministers and officials who are here, I ask you to think about something not in my notes.  
I was looking around this crowd today, at all of us who used to be in office. All of us who came. Why? Because Helmut Kohl gave us the chance to be involved in something bigger than ourselves. Bigger than our terms of office. Bigger than our fleeting careers. Because all of us sooner or later will be in a coffin like that.  And the only gift we can leave behind is a better future for our children, and the freedom to make their own choices, including their own mistakes.  
As a practical matter, and particularly if you know your remarks by heart, it's much easier to put the 15 percent interpolation at the beginning or end of your existing remarks, as Clinton did here. And he goes a step further: Clinton echoes this late-inserted theme later in his remarks, so seamlessly that you might be forgiven for assuming it was there in the first place. Three paragraphs from the end:
But in his big, highly political, often overbearing leadership there was a germ of understanding that the cancers of the 20th century were all born of people who believed domination was better than cooperation. That’s why we’re all here. All of us old guys that used to be wanted to come back and say thank you for giving us a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
The 15 percent rule should not be deployed as a "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" tactic. It's not a wide-open door, but a judicious margin. Here, it's essentially one paragraph added to well-planned remarks--but it's a paragraph that adds immediacy and emotion and an overarching theme to tie the remarks together. Not bad for 15 percent.

The speech is just 11 minutes and 1100 words, which means it's delivered at a brisk pace--perhaps not unwelcome at a memorial service. Watch it here or below, and get inspiration for your own 15 percent.


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