When in the sixth or seventh century BC the slave storyteller first told the story of the tortoise and the hare, his audience must have instantly recognised the moral of the tale. Aesop’s fables always had a wise message behind them, but this one truly was universal: slow and steady wins the race.
We’ve all seen a hare speak in public. Over-confident and boastful, they jump around on stage and talk ten to the dozen. Just watching them is exhausting, much less listening to them or trying to understand what they are saying.
For public speakers, Aesop’s fable is even more applicable than it can be in other walks of life. Yes, dogged pursuit of a goal – regular practice of a skill, for instance – will always win out in the long run. In speaking at a stately pace, the tortoise speaker works hard to invest his every word with the right meaning and weight. This allows the audience to follow their thoughts much more easily.
In speaking, economy really is powerful. A hare speaker will try to pack an awful lot in – three dozen slides, two dozen stories, a joke every three seconds. The hare speaker in this way baffles the audience, and loses their own train of thought. Their point gets missed.
A tortoise speaker, meanwhile, builds a speech methodically: they consider what the take-home message should be, and how to tell a story that reinforces that message and makes it memorable. They structure their speech in such a way that it builds clearly and carefully to its climax. And then they deliver it at a pace which gives them room to breathe – and their audience space to think.
In other words, good speakers take things steady. Speaking too quickly is a sign of nerves as well as over-confidence, and one of the first things many speaking tutors do is train students out of this habit. Many novices simply want to get the experience of public speaking out of way as soon as possible, but this defeats of the purpose of speaking at all.
Making a speech is like having a conversation – there are no special rules. So long as you give pauses before and after important ideas so that they can be understood, simply speak at your usual rate of words. Around 150 words per minute is about right – though if you speak faster longer pauses will make up for that.
In Aesop’s fable, the hare is so over-confident during his race with the tortoise that he takes a nap half-way through it. He oversleeps, and the tortoise wins. In public speaking, going too fast is like being asleep on the job. Unless you embrace your inner tortoise, you may as well not show up on stage at all.