Speaking too rapidly is a common problem that gives your listeners too little time to process information. Listening is a two-step activity: people need to hear what is said, then process that language into meaning. If you speak too quickly, the essential second step doesn’t take place (Ward 2013). (Discover how to use your voice skillfully and speak with influence. Download my free cheat sheet, "5 Key Tools of Vocal Dynamics.")
Speech nervousness is a big reason the "motormouth effect" takes place, of course. If you have that problem, here's how to calm your nerves before speaking. And here's how to stay fully focused when you're presenting. Or perhaps you don't know your material as well as you'd wish; or you didn't have enough time to prepare. Whatever the cause, the opportunity you have to reach an audience can be wasted if listeners can't take in what you're saying!
Here are three ways to develop a slower “speech persona”:
1. Breathe. If you adopt a breathing pattern that has you taking sufficient breaths, you will have to slow down.
2. Enunciate. Choose a poem that challenges you in terms of words that must be enunciated clearly. The “patter songs” of Gilbert & Sullivan (e.g., “I am the very model of a modern major general”), one of which is below, are particularly helpful. Shakespeare, of course, provides such rich imagery that his iambic pentameter must be spoken slowly enough for the character's world view to be understood. Listen to my reading of one of Romeo's speeches from Romeo and Juliet in the audio clip below. Read passges like these out loud, slowly and crisply.
3. Concentrate on Phrasing. We don’t speak in sentences—we speak in ideas. When you read passages aloud, the punctuation of the sentences in meant to assist you in this process. And of course, when you’re speaking without notes, it’s your desire to get an idea across that determines how deliberately you express what you’re saying.
Here’s a two-step process to help you with phrasing:
(1) Practice speaking aloud passages from some of the 19th century novelists or short story writers: Austen, Dickens, Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, etc. Focus on the punctuation and allow it to assist you in getting the ideas across: a comma requires a pause; a semi-colon means a longer pause, and of course a period means a full stop!
(2) Now speak extemporaneously, “seeing” the punctuation in your mind’s eye before you express that idea aloud. For example, if you want to remark about a quarterback’s habit of hurrying his passes, you might say, “Peyton Manning’s problem is, he doesn’t take enough time to set up his passes before he releases the ball,” the comma after the word ‘is’ should make you pause at that instant.
Naturally, you should tape yourself while doing these exercises so that you can train your ear as well as your speech! Below are 3 selections that will allow you to practice. Add to them the extemporaneous exercse in which you see the punctuation ahead of time, and you'll be well on your way to speaking at a rate that allows audiences to savor your every word.
When I, good friends, was called to the bar
I'd an appetite fresh and hearty.
But I was, as many young barristers are
An impecunious party.
I'd a swallow-tail coat of a beautiful blue
And a brief which I bought of a booby;
A couple of shirts, and a collar or two
And a ring that looked like a ruby.
At Westminster Hall I danced a dance
Like a semi-despondent fury;
For I thought I never should hit on a chance
Of addressing a British jury.
But I soon got tired of third-class journeys
And dinners of bread and water;
So I fell in love with a rich attorney's
Elderly, ugly daughter.
The rich attorney, he jump'd with joy
And replied to my fond professions:
"You shall reap the reward of your pluck, my boy
At the Bailey and Middlesex Sessions.
You'll soon get used to her looks," said he
"And a very nice girl you will find her;
She may very well pass for forty-three
In the dusk, with a light behind her!"
Gilbert and Sullivan, Trial by Jury
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
I looked out over the beautiful expanse, bathed in soft yellow moonlight till it was almost as light as day. In the soft light the distant hills became melted, and the shadows in the valleys and gorges of velvety blackness. The mere beauty seemed to cheer me; there was peace and comfort in every breath I drew. As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a storey below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms that the windows of the Count’s own room would look out. The window at which I stood was tall and deep, stone-mullioned [pronounced “MULL-yunned”], and though weather worn, was still complete; but it was evidently many a day since the case had been there. I drew back behind the stonework, and looked carefully out.
What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.
What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear—in awful fear—and there is no escape for me. . . . From Dracula, by Bram Stoker