Let us please now pause for a minute of silence for our departed brothers and sisters from the world of print and online media.
Pause. Silence. More silence. Throat clearing. Coughing. Nervous eye movements and neck twisting.
Thank you. Did I say “minute?” of silence. I’m sorry. I meant to say “moment” of silence and I wouldn’t dare ask you to stand silently for a full 60 seconds. I think for most of us 20 seconds would be the appropriate length for a silent moment.
Size doesn’t matter, or so they say. But I am convinced that length — as in length of time — is a key and also unappreciated component of any effective presentation.
I began to ponder the concept a few days ago, during a holiday visit to the family in upstate New York. For my musically inclined sons, my brother played a song he had written and produced on home-based recording equipment with some clever computer program. Whether you liked the melody or not, my brother pointed out, one positive aspect of the song was that it was just 2 minutes and 12 seconds long — within the reasonable length of time that most pop songs take. He had friends who were writing songs that lasted five or six minutes — too long in most cases.
When people offer advice on presentations, they usually have lots to say about color, sound, structure, graphics, and the composition of the audience. Not so much thought is given to the length of the article, the duration of the show, the ticking clock that goes on in the background of everyone’s life.
All of us have a sense of things in life that can go on too long, or occasionally not long enough. The ideal visit to the family, it seems to me, is three or four days. (As someone once said, fish and guests spoil after three days.) In the case of my recent visit home, we stayed two days and wished we could have stayed one more.
You may agree or disagree with some of my other time values.
The ideal college or high school class: 50 minutes. But a presentation at a business function, it seems to me, should be no more than 20 minutes, with 5 minutes of a previously arranged Q&A ready to follow in case the audience members do not have any immediate questions of their own.
Business introduction. At a recent workshop Eileen Sinett of Comprehensive Communications Specialists made everyone sit through 30 seconds of dead silence. That seemed like more than enough time for anyone to stand up and tell a group who you are. But with a large group 20 seconds seems like an even better limit.
Slide presentation. The old Kodak Carousel projector could hold up to 140 slides and that seems like the upper limit to me, if you move to a new slide every 10 seconds or so. That means the total slide show would be under 25 minutes. PowerPoint presenters should keep that in mind.
Movie length. Two and a half hours (or 150 minutes) seems about right. But there are exceptions: “Dr. Zhivago” was 197 minutes. Would anyone want to cut anything out of “Gone With the Wind,” despite its 3 hour, 42 minute run time?
Sports season. No one measures a sports season in terms of weeks or months, but we know when they are too long. Many of us are uncomfortable with baseball in November. No one likes ice hockey in June.
Holiday season. The Christmas season that begins on Black Friday after Thanksgiving and runs through December 25 seems reasonable to me. But Christmas decorations in store windows the day after Halloween seems too much. On the other hand some of us would appreciate one extra day between Christmas and New Year’s.
Going out of business sale. I can tolerate a three-month sale but after that I begin to think I’m back in Times Square window shopping for electronics.
Dinner party. Three-and-a-half to four hours. Stay longer than that and you should at least offer to help clean up.
Business lunch. Forty-five minutes to an hour and a quarter. Back in the drinking days you could also express the length in terms of the number of alcoholic beverages consumed — two was just right, three was stretching it a little.
Editorial. To me 300 words seems like the optimum length. I enjoyed the January 2 New York Times editorial that criticized the “feudal” hiring agreements made by Lucasfirm and its arch-rival Pixar. The informative editorial was just 255 words.
Blog post. I like Barbara Figge Fox’s blog at http://princetoncomment.blogspot.com. One of the longest ones described the recent “TEDx” event at the Princeton Public Library, explaining what the “TED” concept is and providing telling anecdotes from the Princeton event. It was 462 words.
Personal opinion columns (such as this one, intended for a print publication). I try to limit mine to 1,000 words. Why? Because columns such as this one trade on details of my life that are essentially no different from details in your life. After a certain point it becomes self-indulgent to revel in my stories without listening to yours. I think of these columns as after-dinner mints — in the proper quantity they are quite satisfying; if you over-eat them you begin to choke.
It’s a different story, of course, when you are interviewing outside sources, doing research, and not simply writing from personal experience — but then it’s a feature story, not a personal column.
I also keep the length to this maximum in order to leave enough room on the page to allow some other element to flow underneath. In the case of this column someone reading the classifieds might stumble onto it and read it. Also in this case, I added a few words to my allotment to permit this column to begin on the page with the other presentation-related articles and then jump to this space.
The grand total is 1,016. Of course, it could have been shorter. But as Cicero, the great Roman orator, said: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”