The Speed of Spit

A common occurrence for new speakers (yours truly was no exception) is the double whammy: speakers often speak too fast, and don’t make effective use of the pause.

The problem is understandable. You may have prepared a solid speech, but there may be one thing going through your mind when you stand in front of an audience: you want to finish your speech and sit down as fast as possible.

Throughout high school I participated in a number of school plays (disclaimer: I was anything BUT a great actress). My parents attended each performance and even videotaped some. What an eye opener! I thought I was speaking slowly enough but in reality I was a rambling chipmunk. Here are some tips I have discovered and used over the years.

Tip #1: Talk Too Slow
A great tip from my Theatre teacher: when giving a speech, try to be aware of how fast you are talking. Ideally you want to talk at about 75-80% of (what you think is your) normal speaking pace. If you feel you are talking just a bit too slow, you’re at the right pace. It is highly recommended you videotape your speech (or at least record your voice) to let you know if the rule (and what percentage) is effective for you.

Tip #2: Remember the speed of sound
One of the best pieces of advice I ever came across is to remember the speed of sound. While light travels extremely fast (299 792 458 m/s; thank you Google), the speed of sound is much slower at around 340 m/s (and if you were my Physics lab partner, the number we got came out to roughly 260 m/s).

Translated, it takes time for the words you have said to reach the audience’s ears. It will take additional time for them to listen, process, and understand what you have just said. My advice is to always look at your speech notes and determine where are the points you want to get across? When you are practicing your speech and get to that point, pause, and then continue on.

But how long should you pause? For years I used the very general rule of “pause until you feel it start to get awkward.” However, fellow Toastmaster Craig Hadden has written an article about the “1, 2, 3” rule. Personally I think it a much better guide in knowing how long you should pause.

Tip #3: Embrace the awkwardness
I can almost guarantee when you first start out and try speaking slower with more pauses, it will feel awkward. It will be awkward because it is counter-intuitive in getting you to end your speech sooner; we all know that thought dominates most new speakers. It will feel awkward because it won’t be something you are used to, nor will it be something that comes naturally to most of us: when we are in front of an audience and there is silence, your first instinct is to find something (anything!) to fill that silence. If you keep working on the speech pace and pause length you will be able to get a natural “feel” for what pace is right for you.