Was President Obama’s Speech Too Long?

After President Obama concluded his tone-perfect speech at the University of Arizona on Wednesday, several pundits questioned whether it went on too long.

Most of the criticism centered around their comparisons of President Obama’s speech (which clocked in at more than half an hour) to President Clinton’s after the Oklahoma City bombing (nine minutes) and President Reagan’s after the Challenger explosion (five minutes).

It’s true that President Clinton spoke for only nine minutes, but the speech would have been twice as long if it had been interrupted by numerous rounds of applause, as President Obama’s was tonight.

President Bill Clinton’s Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Speech, 1995

And it’s true that President Reagan’s speech lasted less than five minutes – but a nationally-televised speech from the Oval Office is a totally different format, with totally different demands, than an in-person speech delivered to thousands of people in a basketball arena.

President Reagan’s Challenger Disaster Speech, 1986

Since State of the Union addresses regularly go longer than an hour, speaking for half an hour seems well within the accepted norm for important presidential speeches.

But there’s an easy rule of thumb for how long a speaker should talk: for just as long as necessary, and not a moment longer.

That’s an unsatisfying rule for our trainees who like such things quantified, but great speeches can last just two minutes (The Gettysburg Address) or close to 40 (President Bush’s post-9/11 speech to Congress). Conversely, I’ve seen politicians give dreadful speeches that last just five minutes – and have people running for the door after one.
The enthusiastic reaction from the 14,000 people at Tucson’s McKale Center suggests that President Obama kept their attention the entire time and didn’t cross the line into going too long.

So how long is too long? In the clip from 1988 below, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton gave the nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention. His own party’s delegates booed him, but cheered wildly when he finally said (at about 34 minutes in video below), “In closing.”

A few nights later, he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson’s first question? “So, Governor, how are you?” Without pausing, Carson reached under his desk, pulled out an hourglass, and turned it upside down. The audience roared.

Bill Clinton Booed at the Democratic National Convention, 1988

One final interesting note: Clinton’s speech was 33 minutes, roughly the same length as tonight’s speech given by President Obama. That proves just how important context is in determining the appropriate length of a speech.