The 18-Minute Rule: Public Speaking Missteps from Trump’s State of the Union

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Love him or hate him, President Trump’s speeches are certainly not what one might expect from politicians eager to please everyone. He simply breaks the mold. Winston Churchill’s speeches were well delivered, but it was his writing that stood out. Franklin Roosevelt’s dramatic radio addresses motivated a nation with clever use of his unique speaking style. Abraham Lincoln’s strength was his stirring rhetoric delivered with brevity.

In my opinion, President Trump’s speaking style is more like that of the TV reality show host he once was, using dramatic gestures, pauses, walking around and hand clapping with a staccato speaking style designed to entertain as much as inform. And that leads to my critique of President Trump’s SOTU speech. It was simply too long at 1 hour and 20 minutes. All those politicians in the audience have short attention spans, especially when forced to hear someone other than themselves drone on. And the public is equally tuned out by speeches that long, especially given the dry nature of the topic, and in this video driven age, a distinct lack of visuals.

The 18-Minute Rule: Public Speaking Missteps from Trump’s State of the Union

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if politicians were forced to employ the world famous “TED Talks” 18-minute rule for public speaking? TED is a public speaking phenomenon; Started in 1984 as a one-time event with a variety of lectures on topics covering technology, entertainment and design (TED), over the years it has grown globally, with scores of TEDx events produced worldwide every day. And TED Talks online generate billions of views, proving the 18-minute rule works. So what’s the reason?

Well known public speaker Carmine Gallo, who wrote a successful book titled “Talk Like Ted”, told me in a CBS Radio interview, researchers have discovered that “cognitive backlog”, too much information, prevents the successful transmission of ideas. “Listening to a five-minute presentation produces a relatively small amount of cognitive backlog; an 18-minute presentation produces a little more, while a 60-minute presentation produces so much backlog that you risk seriously upsetting your audience unless you create a very engaging presentation with ‘soft breaks’-stories, videos, demonstrations.” (President Trump did this to dramatic effect by singling out America heroes with incredible back stories.)

Gallo quoted TED curator Chris Anderson on cognitive backlog. “It (18 minutes) is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.”

And researchers have also discovered that speakers are not alone in feeling anxious when giving a presentation. Audiences also feel anxiety. And listening to long speeches can make them feel exhausted afterwards, especially if they are expected to report back to their bosses about what they heard and learned. Let me give you a perfect example of a good speech gone badly by someone who just loved the sound of his own voice at the expense of his audience.

Louis Rukeyser was a very famous financial journalist, columnist and commentator. He was the first to host a finance oriented television show on PBS, “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser” that ran from 1970 until 2002 and made him a star on Wall Street and a household name. So Rukeyser was able to command lucrative fees to speak to business audiences around the world.  I attended one such speech he gave to the National Association of Home Builders in San Francisco back in the early 90’s.

I was interviewing Rukeyser in the green room before his speech, for my CBS radio talk show. Abruptly, the show producer interrupted to tell Rukeyser he had to take the stage. So I told him I would just record some of his remarks from the stage. He went ballistic, literally jumping up and down, shouting at me that taping his speech was forbidden by his contract. So we agreed I would finish the interview after his speech, in his limo on the way back to his hotel.

Louis takes the stage for his breakfast speech before eager home builders hoping for insight on the economy and his outlook for interest rates. I would estimate about 2 thousand of the nation’s home builders were in attendance. Rukeyser started off strong, but then jumped into the weeds with so many facts and figures that his audience started to drift away, perhaps to unload all that coffee, and simply not come back. Only a few hundred loyal fans were left to clap at the end of his remarks about 2 hours later, perhaps simply out of relief.  

The Home Builders PR folks told me it was specified in his contract that not only could no one record his speech, but that he demanded to be given 2 hours speaking time. Afterwards I asked Rukeyser about that, and he said simply it takes that long to give his audience what they needed to know. Today that would be considered arrogant. But then again, Rukeyser was no shrinking violet, and a tough interview.

In my own public speaking experience over decades, I have found one key planning item for time. All too often the person before me talks beyond his or her time limit, forcing me to cut back on my own rehearsed delivery time. The meeting planner will come to me and say something like, “Sorry but can you cut your 20 minute speech in half. We are running late.”  That can be very irritating, but when paid for a speech, do what they ask. Just have a cut down version ready to go.

Back to President Trump’s speech, clocked in at 1 hour and 20 minutes. Certainly the State of the Union does require a long speech, so as to cover the many foreign and domestic issues on the President’s agenda. But his constant attempts to get applause by simply stopping his remarks, slows down the speech. And his clapping along with the audience simply incites more clapping as the clock ticks on and on.

Mr. President, clapping for yourself just does not seem very…well…Presidential.



(Brian Banmiller is a national Business reporter for CBS News Radio, writer and public speaker. The former television business news anchor in San Francisco can be reached at brian@banmilleronbusiness.com.)


This article was originally published on February 2, 2018.

Brian Banmiller

About Brian

CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.

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