Want to give your next presentation more energy and impact? Think speed. Rate of speech is a powerful tool that speakers can use in a presentation, but more often than not, it’s a tool that goes unused. We think about what we are going to say and how we are going to say it, but we rarely think about how fast or slow we should speak. The following three concepts of adrenaline, variety, and weight will help us make sure we are taking full advantage of this speaking tool.
During the beginning of your presentation, you’ll probably experience an adrenaline rush as part of your body’s natural fight-or-flight response. During this adrenaline rush, your heart will beat faster; your breathing rate will increase; and your airways will dilate, allowing them to take in more air. This rush will also cause you to speak more quickly than normal without realizing it. To counter that natural response, you need to be intentional about speaking more slowly during the beginning of your presentation. You should practice slowing your rate of speech when you are preparing ahead of time. Also, take a few deep breaths right before you present to help you calm down. Physician, author, and researcher Esther Sternberg says an adrenaline rush activates our sympathetic nervous system which is like flooring the gas pedal of our body. The way to put the brakes on our stress response is to breathe deeply, which stimulates the opposing parasympathetic system, calming us down. We can learn to control our rate of speech even when fighting through those nerves that arise in the first few moments of presenting.
Most of the time, listeners can process information much faster than you can speak. According to research compiled by the International Listening Association, “the average person talks at a rate of about 125-175 words per minute, while we can listen at rate of up to 450 words per minute.” That means that you should aim for around 150 words per minute, but you shouldn’t stick to that rate for the entirety of your speech. The key here is variety. Speakers who talk too fast during the presentation will exhaust or confuse their listeners, and speakers who talk too slow will bore their listeners. Because there’s a gap between how fast we can listen and how fast people speak, any rate of speech that stays the same for too long will become monotonous for your listeners. Take for example, a drum beat. If I were to start beating on the drum with the exact same pattern and rate, before long, it would probably turn into background noise. But what if I were to change up the pattern and rate at which I was drumming? The variety would hold your attention much longer. This concept also works with our words. If we vary our rate of speech during our presentation, it will capture and hold the audience’s attention.
Think about the weight that words have. Some of what you have to talk about is light—exciting, frivolous, humorous, nonessential. And some of what you have to talk about is heavy—significant, difficult, meaningful, powerful. As a general rule, you should match the rate of your speech to the weight of your words. Speed up when talking about lighter things that can be processed quickly without much effort. Slow down when you are talking about things that hold greater weight to add to the impact of those important words. When the rate of your speech works in tandem with your content, it affects the energy and impact of your presentation.
Understanding how adrenaline affects our rate of speech, how our audience craves variety, and how rate of speech is related to the weight of words, will help us begin to use this powerful tool to better reach our listeners. Rate of speech is another means by which to get your message across with maximum impact, and I hope you’ll use it thoughtfully the next time you present.
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