Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pick up the Pace!

When was the last time you factored in the Pace of your speaking voice?

It's not something speakers often think about, unless we are in a timed speaking situation, or desperate to sit down and shut up. It's easier to just speak the way we speak, and trust that the audience is taking in the brilliance of our content.

Not thinking about it can be a disastrous mistake. Pacing is crucial to keeping your audience engaged, and getting your point across.

Not to be confused with Vocal Variety or Tone of Voice, Pacing is the speed at which you speak. In a typical conversation, we speak at 100-125 words per minute. Giving a speech, say in Toastmasters or in a work presentation, that speeds up to 125-150 words, with gusts up to 175. Adrenaline, the knowledge of what we're going to say ahead of time, and the idea that we either don't want to be, or won't be, all contribute to our faster speech patterns. Speakers who succumb to nerves will often speak at an even faster rate, leaving themselves, and their audiences, breathless.

According to various studies, our average listening speed is between 400 and 700 words per minute. My own opinion leans to the 400 number - since I can't understand much of what the 'World's Fastest Talker' is saying below - in fact, even 400 seems too fast!

Even that statistic is limited. There is a difference between words heard and ideas understood. A speech isn't just about words. It involves ideas, emotions, concepts, mental pictures, problems and solutions, and usually, a call to action.Your speaking Pace must take all of these components into consideration for you to connect and communicate with your audience.

People need time to take in the concepts and consider them for themselves, internalize them, before catching back up to you and your words. Give them the time by slowing down enough to allow them to think. We're not talking minutes here - but seconds. Either slow down your speech and add a short pause, or speed up your speech to add urgency and heightened excitement - then follow with a longer pause. Both will give your audience their necessary "hmmmmm..." moment.

Tips to start using Pace as an effective tool as a speaker:

1. Record your next speech, and get it transcribed. Transcribers are plentiful at about $50/hr on the web, and often, you can even find a teenager to do it for half the price (pick wisely, so you don't end up with half the transcript!). Figure your words per minute from the transcription so you have your baseline speed to consider as you plan your pacing.

2. Once you have the script, listen to the recording, then mark where your pace speeds up and slows down. Do the pace changes make sense? Do they add to the effectiveness of your speech? Are you even aware that your speed is changing - that is, are you intentional in your change of pace?

3. Listen to other speakers that are similar to you in topic and target audience. You Tube offers a wealth of examples. Compare your rate to theirs. Many of the most successful professional speakers speak at a much faster pace than you would expect.

4. Break your speech transcript into five parts - Conversational, Storytelling, Big Ideas, Transitions, and Calls to Action. Some of these may intermingle, such as the climax of your Story being a Big Idea. This can be a helpful exercise in general, even beyond planning your pacing.

With your speech transcript broken down, listen again to hear what your pace is during each segment. If your pace is the same throughout your speech, your audience isn't going to be as engaged as they could be. If your pace is at its slowest during the conversational and storytelling parts of your speech, your audience will likely start to wander.

By speeding up your pace during the conversational parts of your speech, you keep the audience's attention without losing comprehension, unless you really start speeding along. When people don't have to work hard to understand you, you are able to speed up without penalty.

Speeding up during your storytelling will add excitement and intensity, and again keep your audience interested. Speaking at higher speeds allows you to 'set up' your audience for your slower moments - when you get to the big idea you want them to ponder, when you paint a somber or painful emotion, and when you give your call to action.

There are times when its appropriate to speed up when painting emotions or expressing your call to action. It depends on what emotions you are hoping to evoke, who your audience is, and the occasion. The more excitement you want to evoke in a moment, the more speaking at a faster pace, can help the audience feel the emotion with the vigor you intend.

Pacing is going to be different for each speaker, and each of you needs to determine what is going to work for you. The only hard and fast rules I can offer is this: If you don't vary your pacing, and vary it in the right spots for your message and your audience, you aren't being as effective as you should be. You aren't there to read a news report with calm objectivity, and your audience isn't there to hear their High School Science Professor.

The key point to take away from this post? Be aware of your pace. Proactively examine what you are doing now, and determine how your pace can improve your ability to Speak & Deliver.Your audience will thank you!

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