The most important lesson I’ve learned on public speaking was taught to me by Congressman Danny Davis. His voice is hypnotic, like Morgan Freeman’s but with more boom. Hit play, and be soothed as you read the rest of this post:
I saw the Congressman speak in person a few years ago, and I was captivated by his measured, melodic delivery. I hung around afterward, waited for the crowd to die down, and asked him how he learned to do that. He told me that when he was a kid, he stuttered. He figured out that when slowed down, the stuttering went away — it gave him more time to choose his words.
Katie Gore runs a company that provides adult speech therapy in Chicago and often coaches executives to improve their public speaking. She says:
As the speaker, you know what you are going to say. Your audience does not, your message unfolds to them word by word. Auditory processing involves hearing the sounds, translating the sounds into speech, and interpreting the words to realize there is a message. Only after all this is a listener able to actually think about the message.
If you speak quickly, your audience is going to struggle with just the surface processing of the words you’ve said, and you leave them no time to reflect on it in a meaningful way. There is a neurological principle behind giving a message time to “sink in”!
In addition to helping the audience understand, going slow benefits the speaker in a number of ways:
Speaking 30% slower means 30% less content to prepare. Cutting the cruft increases the signal-to-noise ratio.
It gives you gears. When you start slow, you can speed up to add excitement or levity. When you start fast, you have nowhere to go.
It eliminates “Umms,” which happen when your mouth runs ahead of your brain.
Should you get lost, pauses provide space to dig for your next sentence. Since they’re built in from the beginning, it’s not obvious that you lost your way.
Pauses add tension and draw the audience in.
Give it a shot next time you’re on stage. It might feel painfully awkward and unnatural at first. You might feel like the audience is onto you — like they know you’re speaking way slower than you normally do. That’s okay. It’s for their benefit too.