I Talk Too Fast!

You can’t talk too fast

At the beginning of my Presentation Skills Coaching course, I ask participants to identify two presentation behaviors: one they think they do well and one they think they do poorly. On the “needs improvement” side, people frequently list: “I talk too fast.”

My contention is that it’s not physically possible to talk faster than our brains can compute. Here are some statistics that support my point.

On average, American speakers talk at a rate of about 150—160 words per minute. Our ears are comfortable with that rate; it’s become a standard. For example, that pace is recommended for people who record books on tape.

But researchers have proven that adults can fully comprehend what they hear at a rate of 300 words per minute. That’s twice the average rate!

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Are you old enough to remember John Moschitta, the actor who made a series of deadpan, fast-talking ads for FedEx in the 1980s? The Guinness Book of World Records clocked him at a mind-boggling 586 words per minute. And the fun of those commercials was that we could understand him!

So is it really possible for people to “talk too fast”? I don’t think so. But do we hear speakers who make us think, “Gosh, he talks too fast”? Sure. So what’s going on?

When we think a presenter talks too fast, what we really mean is that she’s confused our ear. It’s not that there are too many words per minute, but rather that she’s blurred the indicators our ears need to de-code spoken language. (I’m assuming that her speech is understandable and that diction isn’t the issue.)

An analogy would be if this entire Tip were written without any punctuation or spacing. It would still be English but, boy, it would be tough to de-code. You’d probably stop reading pretty fast, just as we quickly stop listening to those confusing speakers.

To hear what this blurring actually sounds like, and experience the effect it has on your ear, listen to the podcast. You’ll also learn a behavior to help keep your listeners tuned in that isn’t discussed here.

So what can you do to be sure you don’t turn your listeners’ ears off? Three things.

First, end ideas with a downward inflection and a breath

No matter how quickly you string your words together, stop at the end of your sentences. The downward inflection and pause that completes a sentence is the indicator that tells our brains to compute the idea, file it away and get ready for the next idea. We need this indicator if we’re to make sense of your words. The easiest way to be sure you’re giving us the indicator we need is to breathe when you end a thought.

The downward inflection and pause are to our ears what the white space between these paragraphs is to our eyes. It helps. Don’t blur it.

I recently spoke on a panel with several other coaches. One woman’s style was to blow past the periods at the end of her spoken sentences and then pause in the middle of her next sentence. This was a classic example of confusing our ears. It’s not that she spoke particularly fast or that she didn’t pause. Rather, her pause was misplaced. She blurred the indicators that help us de-code spoken language, so listening to her was difficult.

Second, ask for understanding

If you have a concern that you speak too fast, one way to slow yourself down is to ask your listeners if they have any questions—and then wait for the answer!

Actually, any technique you devise to interrupt yourself will help you slow down. When I was learning lines as an actor and wanted to remind myself to pause and breathe at certain spots, I’d use a Sharpie to put two thick backslashes between the sentences. An executive I worked with printed his PowerPoint notes and put big exclamation marks after each bullet point to help him remember to slow down and separate his ideas with a pause.

The point is, find ways to help yourself slow down. Be creative.

Third, talk to us

One major reason (but not the only reason) people accelerate their speech is because of nervousness. As adrenaline turns to anxiety, they begin to race through their material as if they’re trying to outrun a bullet.

During the four years I’ve been writing these Tips, I’ve written many times about managing nervousness and staying present. Here’s one more spin on this idea.

Nervousness is ultimately you focusing on you. “Am I good enough?” “Do they like me?” “Will I ‘pass’ the ‘test’?” “How am I doing?” Nervousness is completely self-centered.

The instant you’re able to shift from focusing on yourself to focusing on the people listening to you, nervousness disappears.

Engage yourself with questions that focus on them: “Are they understanding this?” “I wonder how this sounds to them?” “What questions do people usually have at this point?” “What do I want to be sure they understand?”

When you get focused on the people in the room, the natural pauses and rhythms that help clarify, rather than blur, your meaning will begin to emerge.

Engage your natural style

Think of it this way: when you’re at dinner with friends and tell a story, do you “speak too fast” or blur the indicators that help us de-code your speech? I doubt it. You probably speak completely naturally.

So why does that behavior change when you’re in front of people? It’s your sock puppet or negative self-talk or your self-esteem.

But your natural cadences live inside you. If you’ll talk to us and take the focus off yourself, you’ll do fine.

So if you’re getting feedback that you talk too fast, first, check your diction. If your speech is understandable, then do these three things:
1 End your sentences with a downward inflection and a pause
2 Be creative about reminders to pause
3 Connect with the people in the room and talk to them as you talk to friends

Delivering the indicators we need to decode your speech is a crucial part of The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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