Keep Your Presentations Brief: William Henry Harrison’s Deadly Boring Inaugural Address

We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
(Harrison): I died in thirty days!

The Simpsons‘ “Mediocre Presidents” Song

Despite all the complaints about “death by PowerPoint,” I’ve never heard of a murder  definitively pinned on a boring presentation, though I’d probably love that as a Law and Order plot. There is pretty good evidence of a bad presentation killing its presenter, though. A president, even. And he didn’t need slides or any other technology to do himself in.

William Henry Harrison, aka "Old Tippecanoe"

March 4th marks the anniversary of William Henry Harrison’s fatal inaugural address in 1831. Widely regarded as the worst inaugural speech in history, it was also the longest. He spoke outdoors for more than two hours despite the fact that, at 68, he was the oldest president to date (another record he held until Ronald Reagan came along). It was snowing during the ceremony and Harrison wasn’t wearing a hat or coat. Eventually he caught a cold, then pneumonia and died 32 days later (not 30, as The Simpsons tells us), giving him yet another record–shortest time in office of any president.

You have to wonder if there was still an audience when he finished. Let’s hope they at least had the sense to wear coats, or there may have been other casualties. The speech really is boring. You can find it here, but I wouldn’t  recommend it. The first sentence alone is 99 words long and is probably enough for anyone who isn’t looking to harm themselves:

Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.

From there he goes on to talk at length about the Romans.

Don’t make the same mistake as Harrison. Just because people are there to hear you doesn’t mean they want to hear you talk for hours. Remember that everyone’s time is valuable (at least to them) and that they may not be as interested in your topic (Romans, for example) as you are. Be brief, say what you need to, and wrap it up. Your audience will appreciate the discipline.

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