If I Am To Speak Ten Minutes, I Need a Week for Preparation; If an Hour, I Am Ready Now

Woodrow Wilson? Abraham Lincoln? Rufus Choate? Thomas B. Macaulay? William Howard Taft? Mark Twain? Anonymous?

woodrow04Dear Quote Investigator: A biography of President Woodrow Wilson included an entertaining quotation about the preparation time needed for speeches of varying lengths. Here is an excerpt from the book: 1

A member of the Cabinet congratulated Wilson on introducing the vogue of short speeches and asked him about the time it took him to prepare his speeches. He said:

“It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

This biography was published in 1946, i.e., many years after the death of Wilson in 1924. Could you search for earlier support of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has located a match for a close variant quotation in 1918 that was attributed to Woodrow Wilson. The details are given further below.

There is a family of statements expressing this central idea, and it has been evolving for more than one hundred years. Tracing this family is difficult because of the high variability of the wording.

The first relevant instance found by QI was spoken in 1893 by the Governor of California. He ascribed the words to Abraham Lincoln, but this linkage was weak because Lincoln died decades earlier in 1865.This rudimentary version mentioned two different speech lengths instead of four: 2

Lincoln once made a most apt suggestion applicable to such cases. When asked to appear upon some important occasion and deliver a five-minute speech, he said that he had no time to prepare five-minute speeches, but that he could go and speak an hour at any time.

In 1895 a minister named J. N. Hall gave a speech at a meeting of the Men’s Sunday Evening Club as reported in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper. Hall ascribed an instance of the saying to Rufus Choate who was an orator and Senator from Massachusetts who died decades earlier in 1859. This version was tripartite; however, the third part referred to talking all day instead of speaking for an hour: 3

There is a great deal in condensation in these days of compressed yeast and potted ham, and I am reminded of an incident told of Rufus Choate, who being asked to make a speech on a certain occasion said, “If it is to be a minute speech I shall need four weeks in which to prepare, if a half hour speech, then two weeks, but if I am to talk all day I’m ready now.”

The QI website also has an entry for a popular related quotation: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”. Here is a link.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1900 a doctor employed an instance of the schema while speaking at a convention of the New Hampshire Medical Society. The crafter of the statement was unidentified: 4

Discussion opened by H. L. Stickney, M.D. of Newport.
Mr. President and Fellows:

Some one has said that “if you want me to speak two minutes you give me a notification of two weeks; if you want me to speak five minutes, I should have a notification of one week, but if you want me to talk all day, here I am.”

In 1915 a textbook chapter titled “The Art of Public Speaking” by Grenville Kleiser presented an instance of the expression with an anonymous ascription: 5

A man should take ample time in which properly to prepare his speech. “How long do you wish me to speak?” asked a man who was invited by a society to attend its annual dinner. “Why do you ask?” inquired the secretary. “Because,” said the orator, “if you want me to give a ten-minute address I must have at least two weeks in which to prepare myself, but if you want me to talk for an hour or more, I am ready.”

In 1918 the saying was attributed to President Woodrow Wilson in the pages of a trade publication for the flour milling industry. The third part of this version used the phrase “talk as long as I want” instead of “an hour”: 6

“How long does it take you to prepare one of your speeches?” asked a friend of President Wilson not long ago.

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

In 1922 a textbook titled “Public Speaking Today: A High School Manual” included a variant of the expression which was attributed to Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British statesman and historian who died in 1859: 7

“It takes longer,” says Professor Alden in his Art of Debate, “to prepare a short speech than a long one on almost any subject.” It takes longer to round out a fifteen-minute speech than one an hour long on the same subject. “How long does it take you to work up your speeches?” Macaulay was asked. “That depends,” he replied, “on the length of the speech; if it is a two-hour speech I can prepare it in two days; if it is an hour speech, two weeks; but if it is a ten-minute speech it takes two months.” In the short speech every word must count.

Also in 1922 a college fraternity publication reported on an interfraternity dinner held in Chicago. A speaker stated that a professor he knew had employed a variant of the expression: 8

…that reminds me of a professor that I knew in college in that very much over praised institution that you have heard about here tonight; the boys used to go to him frequently and ask him to address the class of Umpty-ump, or the Wearers of the C, or some other distinguished gathering, and he used to say to them, “Well, now, if you want me to talk fifteen minutes, I must have two weeks to prepare; if you want me to talk half an hour, why I can get along with one week; but if I can talk about the Elmira Reformatory and talk as long as I want to, I am ready now.”

In 1931 “The Rotarian” magazine printed a variant with a reverse ordering. The longest speech length was mentioned first: 9

Some wise speaker once said that if he had fifteen minutes to prepare, he could speak two hours; if he had a day, he could speak an hour; but that if he had two weeks in which to prepare he could make his speech in fifteen minutes.

In 1938 a humor column called “In Lighter Vein” of the “Christian Science Monitor” newspaper printed an instance with an attribution to Woodrow Wilson that closely matched the text of the 1918 citation: 10

The Longer the Quicker

“How long does it take you to prepare one of your speeches?” asked a friend of President Wilson.

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a 10-minute speech, it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half hour speech, it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to, it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

In 1943 the “Boston Herald” of Massachusetts printed a version that was closer to the modern version ascribed to Wilson. The third part mentioned a two-hour speech instead of a speech of unlimited duration: 11

Someone once asked Woodrow Wilson how long it took him to prepare for a ten-minute speech. He said, “Two weeks.” “How long for an hour speech?” “One week,” he answered. “And for a two-hour one?” his interrogator went on, “I am ready now,” replied the late president.

In 1948 a biography titled “The Wilson Era: Years of War and After 1917-1923” included an instance of the saying credited to Wilson as mentioned previously by the questioner: 12

A member of the Cabinet congratulated Wilson on introducing the vogue of short speeches and asked him about the time it took him to prepare his speeches. He said:

“It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

The above citation appears in three key reference works: “Respectfully Quoted” (1989), 13 “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” (2001), 14 and “The Yale Book of Quotations” (2006). 15

In 1985 the “New York Times” published remarks by a diplomat named Andor C. Klay who presented an anecdote featuring President William Howard Taft: 16

Kohanyi requested President William Howard Taft to attend the 20th anniversary banquet of Szabadsag and make a speech there: “Just a brief one, Mr. President, since we can imagine how busy you must be – perhaps five minutes.” The President smiled and declined: “Do you realize my friends, that to prepare even a five-minute speech would take several hours to plan, to draft, to rewrite, to pass through channels for clearances? I’m afraid that I just haven’t got the time.”

Kohanyi pressed: “Well, as far as that goes, we would be delighted to have you speak for an hour.” The monumental body of the heaviest statesman of his time straightened up: “Gentlemen, I am ready, now!”

By 1998 a version of the saying had been connected to the popular humorist Mark Twain on the website of a company providing assistance to public speakers: 17

In fact, Mark Twain is one of the earliest known professional speakers and when asked one day if he could prepare a speech for an upcoming engagement, he responded ,”If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready today.” “If you want me to speak for just a few minutes, it will take me a few weeks to prepare.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Woodrow Wilson probably did employ an instance of this expression. However, the family of sayings had already been established a couple decades before the first ascription to Wilson was published. Wilson was from an academic milieu and the 1922 citation in a fraternity periodical suggested that the saying was in circulation within academia. QI hypothesizes that Wilson was using a pre-existing template.

The attributions to Abraham Lincoln, Rufus Choate, and Mark Twain were all very weak because they occurred many years after the death of the named individuals.

The evolution of this family of sayings does not point to a single authorship, and QI would label the set anonymous.

Image Notes: University Lecture Hall by nikolayhg on Pixabay. Woodrow Wilson 1912 portrait from the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons.

(Special thanks to Christine Haynie whose inquiry led QI to construct this question and initiate this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1946, The Wilson Era: Years of War and After 1917-1923 by Josephus Daniels, Quote Page 624,The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1893, Appendix to the Journals of the Senate and Assembly of the Thirtieth Session of the Legislature of the State of California, Volume 1, First Biennial Message of Governor H. H. Markham to the Legislature of the State of California, Thirtieth Session, (Delivered on January 3, 1893 in Sacramento, California), Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, Published by A. J. Johnston, Superintendent of State Printing, Sacramento, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1895 December 3, Rockford Daily Register Gazette, It’s Second Birthday: Men’s Sunday Evening Club Properly Celebrates, Quote Page 5, Column 2, (GNB Page 3), Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1900, Transactions of the New Hampshire Medical Society at the One Hundred and Ninth Anniversary, (Held at Concord, New Hampshire on May 31 and June 1, 1900), “Nutrition” by J. G. Quimby and M. D. Lakeport, (Discussion section: Speaker: H. L. Stickney), Start Page 245, Quote Page 253, Printer Ira C. Evans, Concord, New Hampshire. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1915, Kleiser’s Complete Guide to Public Speaking, Compiled and Edited by Grenville Kleiser, Section: The Art of Public Speaking by Grenville Kleiser, Start Page vii, Quote Page ix, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1918 April, The Operative Miller, Volume 23, Number 4, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 130, Column 1, Operative Miller Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1922, Public Speaking Today: A High School Manual by Francis Cummins Lockwood and Clarence DeWitt Thorpe, Quote Page 155 and 156, Published by Benj. H. Sanborn & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1922 July, Banta’s Greek Exchange: A Journal Published in the Interest of the College Fraternity World, The Chicago Interfraternity Dinner, Remarks of Mr. Don R. Almy (Sigma Alpha Epsilon), Start Page 144, Quote Page 146, Published by George Banta Publishing Company (The Collegiate Press), Menasha Wisconsin.(Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1931 December, The Rotarian, Volume 39, Number 6, Talking for Action by L. B. Smelser, Start Page 17, Quote Page 56, Column 2 and 3, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1938 May 20, Christian Science Monitor, In Lighter Vein, Quote Page 21, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  11. 1943 July 14, Boston Herald, Doolittle Tokio Raid Told in War Book by Alice Dixon Bond, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1946, The Wilson Era: Years of War and After 1917-1923 by Josephus Daniels, Quote Page 624,The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1989, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, Edited by Suzy Platt, Section: Oratory, Quote Page 244, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust) link link
  14. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Woodrow Wilson, Page 408, Published by Cassell, London and Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  15. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Woodrow Wilson, Quote Page 831, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  16. 1985 December 10, New York Times, Required Reading; Presidential Speeches, (Excerpt from remarks by Andor C. Klay upon receiving the Abraham Lincoln Award of the American Hungarian Federation, November 24, 1985), (Online New York Times Archive at nytimes.com; accessed Mar 1, 2014)
  17. Website: LJL seminars, Article title: Gathering Information & Materials, Article Author: Lenny Laskowski, Date on website: Copyright Notice 1997, Date from Internet Archive Wayback Machine: Snapshot on February 12, 1998 showed that the excerpt was present on the website, Website description: “Public Speaking Seminars, Customer Service Programs, Serving business needs around the world” (Accessed ljlseminars.com on March 1, 2014) link