Speech pace: do you talk too fast, too slow…or just right?

By Laura Bergells on
speech pace

I designed an exercise to give public speaking students insight into the concept of pace. If you’re curious about your own speaking pace, you can complete this exercise in minutes. Try it alone, or as part of a class (or party?) activity.

Step One: The script below contains 170 words. Read it to yourself, so you’re familiar with it. Pretend you’re delivering the script as an informational talk. Next, read it out loud. Make it as conversational and engaging as you can. Time yourself. Stop talking after exactly one minute. Count how many words you spoke aloud. (Hint: if you don’t finish, count the words you missed and subtract from 170.)

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Do you think you speak too fast, too slow, or just right? When it comes to public speaking, you’ll want to talk at a conversational pace. This rate of speech typically ranges from around one hundred forty to one hundred seventy words per minute. If you speak much slower than one hundred forty words per minute, you’re probably not speaking fast enough for your audience. You might be putting them to sleep. However, if you speak much faster than one hundred seventy words per minute, you could be talking too fast. An audience could have a hard time understanding you. You also need to vary your pace. Sometimes, you’ll want to speak more quickly to demonstrate urgency or excitement. Other times, you’ll want to slow down or pause for dramatic effect. To check your pace, record yourself. Listen to the playback. A recording not only lets you time your speech, but it also lets you evaluate how well you vary your pace within the conversational range. Give it a try.

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Step Two: Record yourself reading the above paragraph. When you play it back, listen to yourself talk. How well did you vary your pace as you delivered your speech? What specific techniques might help with tempo and phrasing?

(Often, the hardest part of this exercise is listening to yourself talk out loud. Many people don’t like to hear recordings of their own voices. The reason? We most often hear our own voices from within ourselves; not outside our bodies. Hearing our disembodied voice can sound…well, creepy and weird! Don’t worry: other people probably don’t think you sound weird. Also, the more you listen to recordings of your voice, the less strange you’ll sound to yourself.)

You might have a hard time evaluating your own voice, so ask a classmate or colleague for feedback. To guide the discussion, ask your evaluators to focus on pace and tempo. Here are some sample questions:

  • Did you think I was talking too fast, too slow, or just right?
  • When I paused, how did that seem to you? Too long, too short, not enough?
  • When I quickened my tempo, was I understandable? How did it sound?
  • When I slowed my pace, how did it sound to you? Did it sound appropriate?
  • Reflection and class discussion: How did you do? Did you fall within the conversational range of 140-170 words per minute? What public speaking techniques can help improve pacing? (I.e., what kind of breathing, rehearsal, body language, writing, or other techniques help?)

Final thought: Sometimes, students say they experience pace problems because of the script.

“It’s not a good script. If I could write it myself, in my own words, I’d do better.”

This is fantastic feedback. I love this criticism! Writing and speaking in your own voice is key. If you can do better by rewriting the script, do it.

What other techniques can help your pace?


Laura Bergells is a writer, teacher, and a #LinkedInLearning author. Check out her courses on Crisis Communication and Public Speaking

You can find Laura on Twitter and at YouTube.

PS: I recorded this class assignment on my phone. Similarly, you don’t have to make your own recording fancy. No special microphone or lighting is necessary. Use the tools you have at hand and record the script in one take. If you make a mistake, it’s OK. Keep going. We’ll talk about handling mistakes in class.