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