In my first post in this series, I shared some ideas about how public speakers could learn to make the most of their voice projection.
In this, the second in the series, I’d like to show you how to make the most of your speaking speed.
Vocal Variety – Change Your Pace
The speed at which you deliver your messages (measured in words per minute) 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.
Research demonstrates that audiences believe that people who slow down their pace when speaking to groups have greater gravitas, credibility, and authority.
Did you know that you are already able to speak anywhere between 100 and 300 words per minute? 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. They also don’t realise that their natural conversational speed of 150–180 words per minute (wpm) is almost certainly too fast for a presentation or speech. By comparison, former US president Barack Obama used to speak at around 100 words per minute when giving a speech! Personally, I think that is a little slow for most speeches, and I tell my clients to aim for around 120–130 wpm.
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 using the word count facility in your preferred word processing software. Now read this passage out loud at your usual speed while someone times you on their smartphone. Now divide the time into the number of words to calculate the delivery rate. For example, if you took 45 seconds to read 130 words your average speaking speed is 130/(45/60) = 173 wpm.
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 be feeling like 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 unnatural at the start, but the more you practise this exercise with different passages of text, the more natural it will become.
Practise Your Pauses
As a small child, my teachers taught me that “silence is golden” 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 having been said, knowing when to hold a pause is another element of vocal variety and an essential public speaking skill.
- Pauses give you time to think what you are going to say next or to glance at your notes if your mind has gone blank.
- Pauses give your audience time to digest your messages and create memory-hooks between what you are saying and what they already know.
- Pauses give your audience time to think about what you are saying and to answer any rhetorical questions that you may have asked in your speech.
The reason people find holding a pause difficult is that we are not used to it in everyday speech. In conversation, when we pause, the silence we create 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 otherwise, insert a deliberate pause of at least five seconds before saying anything. Whenever you do this, 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. Repeat this exercise over time, increasing the count from five seconds to seven seconds, and then to 10 seconds, until it comes naturally.
Alternatively, you can challenge yourself by asking your audience a question and holding the silence until somebody answers. To make this easier, ask yourself the 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 practise this, the easier it will get to create powerful pauses.
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.