Essay Contests, Time Limits–and Lessons Learned.

People have remarked to me over the years about the perceived impediment of word or time limits when writing speeches, and have asked me if those limits make my job harder.

Honestly, I smile inside every time the topic is mentioned.

Part of the letter announcing the contest. Yes, I still have it after all of these years!

And I have Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., to thank for that.

Here’s the story.

Back when I was a high school senior, I entered an essay contest sponsored by the fraternity’s local graduate chapter. Open to both boys and girls in my hometown, the winner of the contest would win a cash award and be featured during the fraternity’s “Achievement Week” activities.

I worked very hard on the essay. And I thought I would win–and in fact, I thought I deserved to win–because I put forth a first-place effort. I submitted the essay and waited to be notified of my win.

Then it happened. SECOND PLACE?! What? Although bruising my teenage bravado, I graciously accepted the news.

That graciousness likely was the reason one of the judges followed up with me after the contest. He said the essay was, in fact the best one.  “But there was word limit, and your essay exceeded that limit.”

I was floored. So anxious was I to show off my intelligence and writing skills, that I failed to follow directions.

At that point in my life, “following directions” was the lesson learned. But heeding limits can yield other benefits.

Following word or time limits demonstrates respect for the reader or audience member. I’ve seen countless examples of speakers who eschew time limits. Ignoring the limits shows the audience that your needs as a writer or speaker are more important than the audience’s needs or the reader’s needs.

From the standpoint of the event organizer or host, knowingly mowing over the time limit wrecks havoc on a schedule, and sometimes not only costs time but also money as well.

Either way, such actions are rude and off-putting. Like failing to care enough to prepare properly for a speech, it is the very opposite of winning over an audience and showing them respect.

Another powerful reason to heed limits: it encourages precision. Such limits make the writer or speaker find and distill what is most important to share. The word or time limit isn’t an arbitrary boundary but rather a parameter, guiding us to use the best words, not the most words.

Finally, remembering to use the best words hits at a finer, and perhaps more important point: Although we as writers, speakers and presenters may chafe at word or time limits, they can be freeing. How? By freeing us to share what we know, not prove how much we know.

Sometimes we are eager to demonstrate just how knowledgeable we are about a particular subject or topic. It’s our time to shine, and we are determined to shine as long as possible. And while I understand the impulse, it’s unnecessary.

It was a lesson I didn’t understand as a teenager, but one I understand now: My job as a contest participant was to write the best essay possible. Not prove that I was the best writer. Not prove my intelligence.

Write or deliver the best speech or presentation possible. That is a lesson that applies to all of us, no matter how old we are.

The second-place showing all those years ago became the best gift I could ever receive.

Great life lessons know no limits.


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