How quickly you speak matters. Speak too fast and your audience won’t keep up. Speak too slow and they will just get bored. How you pace your speaking voice will affect how your speech is received.
The best speakers know this. John F. Kennedy, for example, spoke fast: more than three hundred words a minute sometimes. But for his first inaugural address, he slowed down to less than one hundred. That’s because he wanted to be heard – and he knew that slow speakers get their point across.
That said, speak too slow for too long and your audience is more likely to switch off than inch towards the edge of their seats. The trick with pace is to vary it: speak steadily, but within particular sentences feel free to speed up and slow down.
Speaking is like stand-up: it’s all about the timing. A good joke is funny because it lands just so – there’s a reason it’s called a punchline. Comedians work extremely hard on building up to the big laugh – and pacing their delivery so that it gets the loudest guffaws possible. Public speakers need to attend as closely to their pace.
In a speech, you should speed up to convey excitement and carry humour. You can slow down to draw attention to key messages and sober moments. Tempo in this way becomes a sort of way-finding device: it helps cue your audience to your meaning, and keeping track of your rhythm will help them stay engaged with your words.
Humans are restless creatures. A monotone is boring because it never changes. Audiences like variation … but so, too, do speakers. You’ll keep yourself fresh and interested by varying your pace, too. Don’t be robotic about it: know your moves, but try your best to be organic in making them. Enjoy your own delivery, and it’ll show.
In all this, think about your words per minute, or wpm. Around 150wpm is a good conversational speed – but for your big moments that might be too fast. 100 – 125 wpm will feel very stately, use it to hit your message home. Beware, if you go above 160wpm it will feel to the audience like you’re running away from them.
Try to hit an average that feels natural – and clear. We want audiences to feel comfortable with us. We often speak faster with friends than strangers – and your audience will usually be strangers who need the extra time from your speaking slowly entirely to understand what you mean. Be conversational, but slowly. Try using a metronome to measure your speech – and vary your wpm to keep things interesting.
After all, there’s a reason rhythm in music makes people dance: humans respond to pace. In other words, pay close attention to pace – make it varied but also regular, interesting but never complicated. Get Rhythm.