Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Speaking pace off to the races? How to plan your speaking speed

I've been coaching more than 50 speakers 1:1 this autumn. Some have been getting ready for big conferences, like TEDMED or TEDx conferences. Others are part of national programs that want every project to field a speaker for a short talk at a conference, sometimes a Shark Tank-style pitch or a TED-quality talk, often no more than five minutes each. No matter what talks they have ahead, I've found myself saying two words more than any others in our 1:1 coaching sessions.

Slow. Down.

Speed trips up many a speaker because you may be speeding up unconsciously. Often, speakers I work with know that they are speaking too fast only because they've been criticized for it in the workplace. I've shared practical tips on how to hit the brakes when you're speaking too fast. But you'll do even better at pacing yourself if you take the time to analyze your speaking speed, understand why it is so fast, and plan your speech or presentation so you set the pace. Do any of these needs for speed sound familiar?
  • Driving blind: If you've given a particular presentation many times, you may unconsciously speed up in the sections you've memorized completely. We can tell because your voice changes in timbre, tone and pace, often going decidedly higher and faster. It's worth getting a friend to record video of the next time you deliver the talk, so you can watch and listen for this. Where does it occur? Practice those sections in slower pacing until you correct the problem.
  • No roadmap: I can't count high enough to tell you the number of speakers I've met who write out everything they wish to say and then are shocked to be told they're overtime. A better way to plan for time is to use the speechwriter's rule of thumb, 120 words per minute. You may, in fact, wind up speaking faster or slower than this average number, but it's a useful planning tool. Writing your remarks to this mark--for a five-minute talk, that's just 600 words--will leave you plenty of time to pause for effect, get laughs and applause, and not feel rushed.
  • Following the wrong pace car: Sometimes fast talking is the result of nervousness, but let me assure you, your pace need not keep up with your heart rate. Better to pause, breathe through your nose, smile at the audience and then move on. Inserting pauses at the ends of sentences and after every item in a list will go a long way toward slowing you down appropriately.
  • Too many people in the car: I have actually watched people get on a stage and cram 20 minutes' worth of information into five minutes, and the entire audience was either wincing or angry by the end of the five minutes. Jamming too much into a speech, and deciding that a pedal-to-the-metal approach will allow you to do that, is fatal for speakers. I've seen people standing for elections ruin their chances that day and for all time with this tactic. You may have a more benevolent reason--"this is my only chance to speak so I have to put everything in"--but the effect will be the same. Save those gems for a future talk and slow down today, so you get the chance to speak again.
  • Comprehensive insurance: If you're speaking English to people for whom it's not their first language, you'll need to slow down for comprehension. But that's also true for English-speaking audiences, if you go too fast and your topic, ideas, or thoughts are unfamiliar or are highly technical. Speed can wreck your audience's ability to understand you, and if that happens, why bother speaking?
Pauses are golden in speeches, and too few speakers use them to effect. Audiences don't perceive pauses as long stretches of empty space, because they need that time for the big thoughts you're saying to sink in and take hold. They're never as long as you, the speaker, think they are.

Here's a great example of what pauses can add to your talk: Physician Resa Lewiss spoke recently at TEDMED about point-of-care ultrasound, an old technology with a new application. Listen to her pauses, which come at critical moments, such as during dramatic descriptions; while speaking of serious moments, like near-death experiences; when enumerating the items in a list; and when underscoring her take-away points. This talk is just about 6 minutes in length, but feels luxurious, calm, and comprehensive, a testimony to how much you can pack into a short time frame when you slow down.

If you want to plan your pace before your talk, recording yourself on audio or video are the best ways to check your speed. Once you've listened with care, mark up your script to include pauses where you need them, and re-record your best reading of that pause-button version. Then listen to it over and over to get the pacing straight. Your speech or presentation--and you--will have more impact.

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