by Mike O’Mary
“Why does writing a speech take so long?” That’s the question a former boss asked me when I told her it was going to take me 40 hours to write a 40-minute speech for our CEO.
I didn’t have a good answer to her question. “Because it does,” was the only response I could manage. And in retrospect, that was probably as good of an answer as she deserved. But upon further reflection, I had a very good answer. I knew from 20 years of experience as a speechwriter that it takes about an hour per minute to write a speech. Some speeches take less; some take more. But an hour per minute is a pretty good rule of thumb.
My boss’s perception—and the perception of many people who don’t write for a living—is that a writer should be able to dash off a 40-minute speech in an afternoon or two. And truth be told, depending on the type of speech, it is sometimes possible to write a speech in just a few hours. It would have to be a speech on a topic that the speechwriter already knew quite well, so it wouldn’t require any research or revision, which would make it a very rare type of speech. But it’s possible. In the past, I’ve whipped up short speeches on short notice. An example would be a motivational or inspirational speech to employees that is strong on emotional appeal and light on facts and figures.
But this particular 40-minute speech was to an external audience of industry experts at a trade show. And actually, it wasn’t really a speech. It was a presentation with a script. In addition to research and revisions, it was going to require preparation of a PowerPoint presentation. I wasn’t putting the PowerPoint presentation together (if I was, I would have added 50 percent to my time estimate). But it was still going to require time to gather facts and review the presentation, so an hour per minute was a fairly conservative estimate.
With a little math, the hour-per-minute estimate for speech preparation can be adapted for other types of writing. People speak at a rate of 100 to 150 words per minute. So if you assume a “median” speaking rate of 125 words per minute, you can assume for time-budgeting purposes that it’s going to take about an hour to write 125 words for a speech—or for any other type of communication. Again, that estimate includes research and revision time.
A disclaimer: I was not trained as a journalist and have never worked as a journalist. I offer this disclaimer because I know some journalists will scoff at the idea of taking an hour to write 125 words. That’s because some journalists have a superhuman ability to crank out vast volumes of words under tight deadlines, often after consuming quantities of caffeine that cause kidney failure in a normal human being. Of course, many journalists also experience a high rate of job burnout. So for my money (and my sanity), an hour a minute works pretty well.
Mike O’Mary is founding dreamer of Dream of Things, a book publisher and online community for writers and other artists.