Learning from President Harrison: be brief and be gone

By Greg Dardis / Guest Editorial

I’m fascinated by presidential trivia and the way it distills the sprawling history of 43 U.S. presidents and their 44 terms. Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, hence the discrepancy in numbers. Mr. Cleveland also has the distinction of being one of six presidents who was unmarried at the time he was sworn into office. Four had been widowed, James Buchanan remained a bachelor and Mr. Cleveland married during his first term. He was 49 and his bride, Frances, was 21.

Among our commanders-in-chief, four died in office of natural causes, and four were assassinated. Four lost the popular vote but still assumed office. Franklin D. Roosevelt served the longest term, logging in more than 12 years (and inspiring the passage of a two-term limit). The shortest term lasted just one month. I like to share that story with clients.

When William Harrison was sworn in as our ninth president on a March 4, 1841, he was 68-years-old, the oldest president to date. Determined to demonstrate a youthful vigor, he refused to wear a coat or hat when giving his inaugural speech. It was a frigid day – a mix of rain and storm – and the speech went on and on and on. Though he pledged, in his opening remarks, to present “a summary of the principles that will govern me” as chief executive, the ensuing speech was far from a summary. It took many twists and turns, touching on European government, ancient Rome, the role of the press and the centrality of Christianity. Mr. Harrison even went so far as to speculate that some Americans would doubt his sincerity. “The lapse of a few months will confirm or dispel their fears,” he said.

In total, the speech ran 8,444 words and lasted nearly two hours.

The president contracted pneumonia from the extended exposure to freezing weather. He died of complications from the pneumonia 31 days later. His wife had not yet moved into the White House.

Today, Mr. Harrison offers a cautionary tale for public speakers: verbose presentations can have fatal consequences.

The problem with an unreasonably long speech is that it does not respect your audience’s time. It can also insult their intelligence, implying that they need points to be repeated or elaborated ad nauseam.

Ultimately, a longwinded talk conveys an outsized ego. That’s not always true. It is often the result of anxiety or lack of preparation. We fill the silence out of nervousness, we ramble on when we don’t know what we’re trying to say or how to wrap it up. But no matter the reason, it always comes across as an inflated sense of self-importance: You keep listening, I’ll keep talking.

At Dardis, our motto is “be brief, be bright and be gone.” Short is truly sweet, better to leave your audience wanting more than waiting for you to end. There is always opportunity for follow-up, which is when the most useful conversations tend to happen.

Few occasions warrant a lengthy talk. Even if you are the keynote speaker of a formal event, you won’t be the only person standing behind that microphone. Allow for intros and exits, for questions and answers and for socializing. Put yourself in their shoes. For every minute you talk, someone out there is paying a babysitter. Someone is nearing a deadline. Someone’s stomach is growling. Someone is suppressing a yawn. No one will object if the event ends early.

The ability to give a short talk reflects orderly thinking and mental agility. Best of all, a concise presentation shows the audience how much you value their time. It says: “I put in extra effort so I could save you time.” You never know how they’ll express their appreciation.

I’ll leave you with one more bit of presidential trivia. Forty eight years after Mr. Harrison’s inauguration, his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, became the 23rd American president. He learned from his grandpa’s mistake, giving an inaugural speech that was half the length.



Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Inc., located at 2403 Muddy Creek Lane in Coralville. For more information, visit www.dardisinc.com.