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Column for 4.11.12
An organization I belong to asked my advice the other day. This group is considering inviting authors to a Saturday forum to talk about writing.
“Do you think we can get enough authors to attend?” I was asked.
“That won’t be a problem,” I said. “Authors enjoy talking about writing more than actually writing.”
“We’d like to invite either six or eight authors and have half of them talk before lunch and half after. We’d ask each of them to talk for about 20 minutes.”
“Keeping them to 20 minutes might be a problem,” I said. “Once a writer gets talking about writing it isn’t easy to stop them.”
I recalled out loud the time I was on a panel of four writers talking about writing. We were supposed to talk for 30 minutes each. The first writer talked for almost an hour. The second spoke nearly as long. The third talked for exactly 30 minutes. I was the last to speak. I talked for 10 minutes and got the most applause. I don’t think the enthusiastic applause had anything to do with anything I said.
“So how do we make sure everybody adheres to the time limit?” the president of my organization asked.
I had a ready answer, the same solution I suggest whenever this topic comes up. I call it the 49th solution, named in honor of the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, which once protected the United States from attack by Soviet bombers.
The 49th was headquartered at Griffiss back when it was a U.S. Air Force Base. The 49th defended the east coast of the U.S. during the Cold War years. When a Soviet bomber got too close, jets from the 49th, which were always on alert, scrambled from Griffiss. Alas, the 49th was deactivated in the late 1980s and the squadron’s fleet of F-106 Delta Darts, a beautiful looking fighter jet, were either transferred to Air National Guard units or put into mothballs.
Anyway, I advised my organization to use the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron’s technique, which is quite simple but effective, to keep speakers to the allotted time.
This is how it worked for the 49th: When the squadron was deactivated, several functions were held to recognize the squadron’s great history.
Included in these functions was a formal dinner at the Griffiss Officers Club. The idea was to let each pilot in the squadron go to the podium and talk about the 49th or anything else that seemed appropriate.
But how to make sure the speeches were short enough to keep the evening from going into the early morning? Fighter pilots, after all, aren’t known for being shy.
An officer in the 49th, one of those involved with planning the dinner, came up with an idea. A large bucket of ice was placed next to the podium. Each pilot was told they could speak as long as they wanted, just as long as they kept one hand deep in the bucket. The moment their hand was removed from the bucket of ice, the speech was done.
According to one of those present that night, the speeches were short and to the point.
This isn’t the first time I’ve suggested the 49th’s method of making sure speakers keep their remarks brief. A couple of years ago another organization sought my advice and I gave them the 49th solution. They changed it only slightly.
The master of ceremonies told the 49th story to the audience and then had a waiter make a big show of bringing a filled ice bucket up to the podium. Although none of the speakers actually had to put a hand in the bucket, just having the ice next to them did the trick.