One of the most frequent changes I make with my clients is to force them to slow down when they speak.
Speaking slowly, a seemingly simple adjustment, almost always creates a huge change in how they sound.
But they sometimes ask: “If I slow down, will I be able to say everything I need to?”
Well, watch the following video and find out.
Dr. Daniel Amen speaks very slowly in this TEDx talk. In fact, he’s almost being too slow for a well-educated adult audience of fluent speakers.
But it works very well for him.
I looked at the transcript of this talk and counted the total words. In 14 minutes and 26 seconds of speaking, he utters 1,751 words. That is a rate of 121 words per minute.
So Dr. Amen is right near the bottom of the range.
In under 15 minutes, speaking slowly, he is able to make a number of important points, pique our interest, tell multiple stories with passion and emotion, and convey useful information concisely.
Less than 15 minutes to accomplish all of that.
And he does it in 1,751 words, which is the length of several online news articles.
A typical meeting, sales pitch or internal presentation will easily last 15 minutes (most meetings shouldn’t last longer than that anyway).
The benefits of speaking slowly include:
- Feeling more relaxed and in control, which is critical when presenting
- Your words have more weight and power because there are fewer of them–you aren’t “devaluing the currency” so to speak
- The audience has an easier time following your presentation because there is less to keep track of and you aren’t overwhelming them with too much information
- You are able to inject more emotion, passion and emphasis into your words because you aren’t rushing to get to the next sentence
- You are able to manage your pacing more effectively, while getting less distracted by random thoughts, side-points and tangents that pop into your head
- You come across as more relaxed, steady, confident and knowledgeable
Speaking too quickly is a common challenge for presenters.
Speaking too quickly puts pressure on yourself and gives your words less significance.
You feel more rushed, you sound more rushed, and you have less control over your own mouth.
When you speak too quickly, your mouth will randomly start saying things because of that fast momentum. You then feel obligated to finish those thoughts and you get off-track. This undercuts your own presentation and makes you look more disorganized and out-of-control.
And your audience has a harder time following your presentation. They will automatically discard lots of the words you say. Some will just check out altogether. This weakens your impact, and makes you seem less reliable and believable.
If you are still wondering if speaking with fewer words can make an impact, just remember one of the most famous speeches of all time. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was 278 words.
How slow is too slow when speaking?
You may watch the video above and say “Wow, that guy is way too slow. My natural speed is much faster.”
Everyone’s ideal speed will be different.
The correct speed for your speech depends on three things:
- The audience
- The context
- Your personal best speaking style
The audience may prefer a slower or faster speaking style. This can be affected by their age, demographics, and level of fluency in your language, for example.
The context will also affect ideal speaking speed: a 90-minute lecture at an academic conference (slower) vs a 45-minute high-level corporate meeting with 10 presenters (faster).
But the most important of all these? Your personal best–the speed at which you are able to successfully get your ideas across, regardless of audience or context.
If you are reading this article, you probably feel that you are talking too fast when you present, or you have gotten that feedback from colleagues or friends.
For Dr. Amen giving a TEDx talk, speaking at 121 words per minute works very well.
For Gary Vaynerchuk, given his personality, energy level, and the audience he targets (which is often young entrepreneurs), speaking significantly faster works better.
In the opening minutes of this speech, Gary speaks at about 167 words per minute:
Your ideal speed may be 130, 170 or 190 WPM.
But no matter what, you must speak slowly enough that the audience fully appreciates and understands your message.
You should never feel rushed, under pressure or overwhelmed when speaking.
How do you talk more slowly?
So the benefits of speaking slowly are clear.
But how do you do it? If you have a bad habit of rushing through your remarks, how do you change?
There are several key steps:
- Proper breathing and breath control
- Time management
- Course correcting while in mid-speech
- Embrace silence
1. Proper breathing and breath control
When we are running out of breath but trying to say something, what happens? We talk faster.
So the first remedy is quite simple: make sure you nourish your lungs with plenty of air so that you don’t have to rush.
Every time you take a breath in, take in as much air as possible.
This gives you much greater control over your speaking speed. You can slow down or speed up as you wish, depending on the sentence and the idea you are expressing.
Air gives you options. With too little air in your lungs, you won’t have the luxury of talking slowly. You will feel the pressure to talk quicker.
And it’s common for people to have shallow breathing (i.e. not enough air) when public speaking. This is caused by the fight-flight-or-freeze response that we have when we are nervous on stage.
We explored how to overcome that nervousness or stage fright here.
But for now just be aware of this tendency, and control your breathing.
2. Time management
What happens when you are running out of time but you need to get your points across? You speak faster!
Therefore, to speak more slowly, make sure to plan your presentation well. Part of that is planning the time for each section of your presentation.
It seems simple, but I’m consistently amazed at how many presenters fail to adequately prepare for their speech.
The result is a disorganized, rushed or mediocre presentation.
A good presentation takes time and focus to put together. Planning out the time management is critical not just for speaking slowly, but for your image and professionalism.
And then, once you are in your presentation, stay faithful to your plan. Stick to the times you planned for each section, and you will feel comfortable enough to speak at a slow and steady pace.
3. Course correcting while in mid-speech
Inevitably you will mess up while you are on stage.
At some point you will realize you are speaking too fast. Don’t get flustered. It’s normal. Remain in control.
Just recognize the issue, and as soon as you realize it, slow yourself back down.
Course-correcting while in mid-speech is a necessary skill that every presenter needs. Don’t just go on autopilot from start to finish.
You must be able to adjust and change your speaking speed on the fly.
This error might stem from getting off track, going off on a tangent, getting distracted, being interrupted, or time management problems with the organization of the event that are out of your control.
Whatever the cause, the second you realize the mistake, take a deep breath, re-focus on your time management, and slow your speaking again.
Consistently correcting yourself will reduce your errors on stage eventually to zero, and you will speak slowly 100% of the time.
4. Embrace silence
Remember the value of silence.
Silence is not the opposite of communication, it’s an integral part of it.
Silence is used strategically to build anticipation, to highlight a key point, or to draw attention and emphasis to a particular idea.
When you embrace silence, speaking slowly becomes extremely easy. Most new public speakers are uncomfortable or even afraid of silence.
They assume they need to keep yapping constantly to keep the audience’s attention (not true–injecting silence periodically actually makes the audience more engaged).
Or they think that silence makes them seem unprepared or unintelligent (also untrue–proper silence demonstrates self-assuredness, and shows an understanding of what’s important to highlight and what is not).
If you are going to talk more slowly, you can’t get around silence. Silence will have to be a core feature of your speaking.
You must make friends with silence, be comfortable with it, and use it to your advantage.
Finally, be concise.
With fewer words, you literally have less work to do on stage.
(It’s actually more work beforehand, because to create a concise message is challenging and requires strategizing and planning. But it’s less work at the presentation itself.)
Concision makes your speech easier to deliver, and makes it easier for the audience to understand your message.
With less to say, you have the luxury of speaking slowly.
You will appear confident, organized, and clear-headed. Your words will have much more impact.
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