Lengthy Speeches. Authoritarian Speakers. The Link.

By Andrew Ivey | Speeches

Apr 27

Among other reputations, Fidel Castro had a reputation for lengthy speeches. So, when after some four years of conspicuous absence from the speaking podium, the late Fidel Castro gave a speech in August 2010, there was concern. It had been four years since his mystery intestinal illness forced Cuba’s former leader to give up power to his younger brother Raul.

Not a lengthy Fidel Castro Speech

A short speech from Fidel Castro

So this speech was a surprise to the assembled lawmakers in Cuba’s Parliament in Havana. Since it was short.

Castro’s speech was something of a personal best. At less than 11 minutes the speech was undoubtedly his shortest in his 49 years of power in Cuba. Perhaps he really was following his own words:

“I have reached the conclusion, a bit late perhaps, that speeches should be short.”

Perhaps he no longer had the endurance required for lengthy speeches of several hours. Because those speeches certainly stretched the endurance and stamina of his audiences.

Notably his audience in the parliament building included his brother Raul, the new Leader. Could it be that the short speech was another sign of the shift of power? Either way, brief speeches are typically best.

In contrast, President Putin doesn’t yet have a reputation for interminably lengthy speeches. Unlike many of his predecessors of course he’s comparatively concise and brief.

Yet his annual call-in television show went on for nearly five hours in April 2013…4 hours 47 minutes–85 questions answered. Quite an epic.

Lengthy speeches

Lengthy Speeches: President Putin

Putin’s was not a marathon speech. But it was an impressive question and answer session. One of the longest we’ve come across.

Lengthy Speeches and Authoritarian Speakers

There’s some relationship between totalitarianism and lengthy speeches. That’s an observed relationship and not one that necessarily stands up to full scientific investigation.

President Putin is democratically elected, irregularities in the voting aside, and the length of his speeches are pretty standard in contrast to his predecessors. Predecessors who weren’t elected with the popular vote. Perhaps his lengthy question and answer session reflects the democracy that underpins his position?

Elsewhere in the world, we’ve looked at the speeches of President Mugabe, the public speaking of Fidel Castro and the speeches of the late Hugo Chavez. Colonel Gaddafi’s speeches were equally notorious. All have or had a propensity for long-winded speeches. And all have or had a whiff of authoritarianism.

Lengthy Speeches: The Rationale

Megan Lane of the the BBC News magazine explored this very issue some years ago. Her observations noted that democratically elected leaders today don’t dare to give a lengthy speech…fearing their audience will get bored, restless or just disappear.

In contrast, authoritarian leaders have no such fear. Their audiences won’t want to provide an excuse for the security team to punish them for yawning! Their disappearance might not be voluntary.

That’s another observed assessment that might not stand up to full scrutiny. But it sounds feasible.

Pity then the tired old authoritarian leader whose speeches are a yawn, whose public speaking has lost its edge and whose audiences are no longer worried with hiding their feelings. That’s the situation for Robert Mugabe.

But for the last word on lengthy speeches we have the example of China to fall back on…no stranger to authoritarianism. Chinese state media reported last year that the mayor of Guangzhou has had enough of lengthy speeches–he took a fifty-eight-minute speech to say so.

The Mayor, Wan Qingliang, told a local Party meeting that speeches should last no longer than one hour for key meetings, and half an hour for other meetings.

Perhaps authoritarian speakers can change their public speaking habits after all…but it takes a unilateral decision, no debate and absolutely no dissent. Way to go.


About the Author

The Principal Trainer at training business Time to Market. Based in Bracknell, I run presentation and public speaking training courses, coaching sessions and seminars throughout the UK. Andrew Ivey on Google+