If listeners ask, “Would you repeat that?” frequently, or look back at you with glassy, uncomprehending expressions, you may be speaking at a rate that is either too fast or too slow.
Typically, speech rate becomes a problem when the listener does not understand the message. When speaking to others, the rate of speech is critical to maintaining audience attention. Listeners not only need to hear the words that are being spoken, but then must translate those words into meaningful context.
Speaking too quickly is a common speech problem. Most of us tend to accelerate our speech when we are excited or stressed. As a result, the listener can’t keep up in processing the content and will eventually give up. Hence, most of your message will be lost as a direct consequence.
Speaking too slowly is less common but can be equally distracting to a listener. In this case the listener may have too much time for processing and might very well begin to concentrate on other, more interesting things. Once again, much of your message will be lost.
Speech volume, or how softly or loudly you speak, can directly affect the way a speaker is perceived. Verbal pitch, or how high or low your voice is presented, is also an important tool for gaining audience interest. But it is the rate of speech that is crucial in maintaining audience attention.
Average speech rates are on the order of 120 – 140 words per minute. The rate is faster in some locations such as New York City, and slower in others. What matters less is how many words a speaker can deliver, but more how many of those words are understood by the listener. Varying the rate at which words are spoken can be an effective technique, but slow is better than fast as a general rule.
If you often find yourself speaking too quickly, here are several techniques to slow down your rate of speech:
• Start by taking some slow, deep breaths. This can be a relaxation method that will help concentrate the mind and dissipate some of the nervous energy.
• Focus on enunciation. Our speech will be clearer and more easily understood if our enunciation is proper and the potential slurring of syllables or mispronunciation of words in accelerated speech is avoided.
• Concentrate on phrasing. Our speech is comprised of phrases and sentences, with punctuation telling us how the information should be phrased. In contrast, speaking too quickly always runs the risk of run-on sentences that can suddenly stream into a continuous verbal blur that confuses and confounds.
• Find natural pauses that allow the listener to catch up. By providing the listener an opportunity to keep up, catch up, or briefly reflect on the message, the listener’s attention will be far more likely maintained from start to finish.
Remember, practice can improve rate of speech and ultimately augment the overall effectiveness of a message.