Speaking Speed – How to Perfect Your Pace

Vocal Variety, are you exceding the speed limit

Welcome to the second post in a series of articles on vocal variety for speakers and presenters. In the previous article, I shared some ideas about how public speakers can make the most of their voice projection.

Today, I'd like to show you to make the most of your speaking speed.

Vocal Variety - How Fast Do You speak?

The speed at which you deliver your verbal messages is is another critical element of vocal variety. 

  • Speak too fast, and your audience will struggle to keep up
  • Speak too slowly and they will drift off.

In my experience, speaking too fast is one of the most common faults of inexperienced speakers.  Often it's due to nerves.  If we are scared of speaking in front of a group, our flight response kicks in and we speed up to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Have you ever been in an audience listening to someone who speaks too fast?

Typically, several things happen:

  • We don't have time to process the information being presented because it is coming at us so quickly and so it goes in one ear and out the other
  • The speaker's words may run into each other making it difficult for us to make out what he or she is saying
  • Listening becomes too hard and so we stop and think about something easier - like what's for lunch

What is the ideal speaking speed?

Most people are simply not aware of how fast or how slow they talk, or of whether their speaking speed causes any problems for their listeners.

By now, you are probably wondering what is the ideal speaking speed and how do we measure it?

Usually, we measure the rate of speech in terms of words per minute. Did you know that you have the ability to speak anywhere between 100 and 300 words per minute?

Our natural conversational speed typically ranges between 150-180 words per minute (wpm.)  This is fine when we are chatting informally with a few friends but is almost certainly too fast for a presentation or speech.

By comparison, former US President, Barak Obama used to speak at around 100 words per minute when giving a speech!  But then he was the US president and he was speaking to international audiences.  As an experienced speaker, I believe that an average of  120-130 wpm is about right for most occasions.

But...

So far I have just looked at average speaking speed.  I am not recommending that you speak at the same speed all the time.

It is possible (and preferable) to vary your speaking speed and still achieve the average speeds I mentioned above.

Exercises to help you slow down

Identify a passage of text from a document, company report or speech and select a section that is exactly 130 words long. (Most word processors have a word count facility.)

Now read this passage out loud at your usual speed while someone times you on their smartphone.

Finally, divide the time into the number of words to calculate your delivery rate.  For example, if you took 50 seconds to say the 130 words your delivery speed would be 156 words per minute

speaking speec calculation

If it's more than 130 words a minute, try again. Deliberately slow down and see if you can get it closer to or slightly below the 130 wpm target.

I know from personal experience that most people struggle to hit the 130 wpm target first time around. I also know that when you do hit it, you'll probably feel that you are speaking way too slowly.

Relax, you're not, it's just that your brain has got used to talking faster. Speaking slower will feel unfamiliar, to begin with, but will get easier the more you practice this exercise.

Practice your pauses

As a small child, my teachers taught me that "silence is golden." Probably in the hope that they would have an easier life. Today I know better. I understand that we all have something to say and that speaking out is a fundamental human right. That said, knowing when to hold a pause, is another essential element of vocal variety.

  1. Pauses give you time to  think or to glance at your notes if your mind goes blank
  2. Pauses give your audience time to digest your messages and create memory-hooks 
  3. Pauses give your audience time to consider the answers to any rhetorical questions that you may have asked.

Pausing is difficult because we are not used to it in everyday speech. In conversation, when we pause, the silence is invariably filled by one of the other people in the group. When we present, this doesn't happen, and a couple of seconds of silence feels like an eternity.  However, you can reset your threshold for pauses, with a little practice.

How to make holding silence easier

Whenever you ask your audience a question, rhetorical or make an important point, insert a deliberate pause of at least five seconds. You can overcome your natural wish to fill the gap by counting slowly to five in your head.  When your brain has something to do, it can cope easily with the silence. Over time repeat this exercise, increasing the count from five seconds to 7 seconds, and then to 10 seconds, until it comes naturally.

Alternatively, you can ask your audience a question and then stay silent until somebody answers.
To make this easier, ask yourself the following question.  "I wonder how long it will take for someone to answer?" And then count slowly and steadily in your head until a reply is forthcoming. The more you practice this, the easier it will get to create powerful pauses.

In conclusion

If you are serious about becoming a better speaker, you need to learn how to make the most of your vocal variety. So far I've looked at voice projection and speaking speed. In my next article, I'll look at tone and resonance so look out for that one coming soon.

In the meantime, if you found this article helpful please leave a comment and also share it with your friends.

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