Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hitting the brakes: When you're a speedy speaker

Are you a fast talker? Do you try to cram too much into your presentations and compensate with speed? Or is it your nervousness that makes you race to the finish? No matter what reason you use to speed ahead, those of us listening will get more out of your talk if you slow down. Here are five ways to hit the brakes and pace yourself during a presentation or public speaking gig:

  1. Don't speak as fast as you do in conversation.  You might speak as many as 400 words a minute when you're in a lively conversation, but your speaking audience needs you to slow down. Speechwriters generally aim to write speeches to hit about 120 words per minute. You may be slightly faster or slower than that. It takes work to develop a slower presenting style, but you'll be a much more effective speaker. For starters, we may actually hear you!
  2. If the problem is nerves, work on them.  Speaking faster doesn't actually help you or your audience, no matter how much you want to get it over with.  Don't speed up to solve the nerves problem. Take the time to do breathing exercises and get more practice until you're confident enough to pace yourself.
  3. Think about speaking like keeping time in music:  If you're dancing to a band and they're playing too fast, you'll never keep up. That's also true when you speak too fast--you're ensuring your audience won't keep up with you. Invest in a metronome,and enlist a friend to set it close to your current speaking speed (you may be surprised). Then dial it back gradually while you practice to slower and slower beats per minute, until you get used to a slower speaking style.
  4. Program physical pauses into your sentences:  Musicians in symphony orchestras keep time with their toes--inside their shoes. You won't see them tapping their feet, but they're flexing and pulsing in time under that shoe leather. Do that when you need to pause as a physical reminder to slow down. (This is especially effective if you're not working with notes and therefore can't write down your reminders to pause.)  All you need to remember are mental cues, like two beats in between sentences, and let your foot keep track.
  5. Watch out for lists:  When you're speaking a list--particularly when you know its contents by heart--you may rush right through it without giving your audience time to comprehend each item.  Insert longer pauses between the items in a list: "So when we decided to raise more funding, we recruited new board members with fundraising experience [pause], put our renovation plans on hold [pause], and focused on cultivating new prospects."
Do you think you speak too fast? What techniques are you using to slow down? Share them in the comments.

Related posts: Speaking science: Speaker speed limits

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