Speed Speaking

"What is the most important thing to remember when you get up to give a speech?"

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are public speakers. Here's mine: Most important? That the audience hears me and understands what I'm saying.

Our voice is the primary vehicle we use to make sure they understand us. How we feel about giving the speech will influence how we sound when we actually begin to talk. But it’s not just a matter of ‘opening our mouth and let ‘er rip!’ Just getting the words right is only the beginning of what we need to be aware of.

If we think about it, there are many things we do naturally, without thinking about it, that affect how we sound in front of an audience, i.e., controlling the volume, the pitch, the tone, the strength, and last but not least, the speed.

When you're feeling good about yourself, confident that you know your material and will do a good job, your voice will show it. You'll speak with good volume, won't suddenly lose your voice and speak in a whisper, or talk too loud to cover the sound of your violently beating heart. Your voice will sound regulated, even and strong. They'll have no difficulty understanding every word you say.

But what if, when you get up in front of the room, you speak too slow, too loud, too soft, in a jerky uneven tempo, or even feel like you're losing your voice in the middle of your talk?

Too slow? Are you unsure of what you're saying? Worried it's not 'right'. Maybe as a child you were told to slow down, you're talking too fast. Speaking slowly became a habit. Or, perhaps you're afraid you didn't prepare enough material to fill the time you've been given. Rehearse with a timer beforehand and you won't have to worry.

Too loud? You're afraid they won't listen unless you're extra forceful. Did you have to compete for attention when you were growing up and speaking loudly was the only way to be heard over the others? Are you afraid the audience will fall asleep? Possibly you may have a hearing deficiency and don't realize how loudly you're speaking.

Too soft? Are you sure of your material? Worried you'll say something they won't agree with? You don't want to be heard because then you'll have to defend what you're saying? Maybe you're shy and embarrassed to be in front of people because you don't feel you belong there.

Jerky tempo? Lots of starts and stops, you can't get a smooth rhythm going? You're probably not sure of your material. Can't find your place in your notes, or you're trying to 'wing it'? Give yourself plenty of rehearsal ahead of time. Trying to figure it out on the spot is a fool's game that you’ll probably lose.

Losing your voice? Are you so disheartened by your incompetence that you don't even want to be heard? Creating an excuse to end your misery quickly? Or maybe you really are coming down with laryngitis.

I’ve saved the best for last. Are you a victim of Speed-Speaking? Do you just talk too fast to be easily understood? Congratulations! Your mind works faster than your tongue. That’s a double-edged sword.

You can come up with way too much info that you want to share with the audience, but not have enough time to say it. So you rush through it, trying to get it all out. Or maybe you’re anxious to get this speech over with. Perhaps when you were a kid expressing your opinion, you were told to be quiet, what you think doesn't matter. You got into the habit of speaking fast to get it all out before they could shut you up.

Here’s the problem with speed-speaking. The audience is likely to tune out because they can’t listen and absorb what you’re saying at lightning speed. They need time. First to hear what you’re saying, second to absorb it, third to process it, and finally to store it where they can find it later. All of this happens in split-second time, but only if they can hear you clearly at a tempo their brains can absorb.

Speed-speaking makes it just too difficult to understand what you’re saying, so they’ll give up and tune out

Practice your speaking tempo when you rehearse, preferably in front of a friend. Or record your speech and listen to it with a critical ear, looking for those moments when you really did speak too fast. You can train yourself to speak at an easy-listening tempo. Your audience will thank you.