Slow Down: Why Speaking Too Fast Can Hurt Your Message

Speaking is about connecting with others to get our message heard. But it's harder to accomplish this if we're prone to speaking too fast.
March 14, 2018

Whether it's texting, tweeting or fast-forwarding videos, technology plays a part in making speed an expectation in everything we do. The influence of speed in our lives can also manifest itself in the way we speak. As such, speaking too fast is a common problem in communication.

But speaking too fast can work against you, whether it's in presentations, telephone calls, meetings or one-on-one conversations. If you're explaining something to a client or trying to influence an audience, speaking too fast can cause confusion. And if people are confused, they probably won't buy your message.

Have you been told that you're speaking too fast or do people often ask you to slow down when you present? You might want to explore some of the downsides of speaking too fast and learn what can be done about it.

What Are the Downsides of Speaking Too Fast?

There are a number of problems associated with speaking too quickly. Each one of these can derail your presentation—and even cause a dent in your credibility.

1. It can create a negative impression.

One of the most detrimental aspects of speaking too fast is that it can create a bad impression.

Our culture is riddled with negative connotations of being a fast talker. Speaking too fast can make what you're saying appear "salesy," as though you're trying to sell something rather than imparting your expertise or knowledge to help someone make a decision. No one likes to feel that they're being sold to.

You can have a well-thought-out and beautifully crafted message for your presentation. But if you speak too quickly, your audience may miss out on it.

It can also make you look impatient, aggressive or even lacking empathy for the listener. We may appear as someone just trying to get a transaction over as quickly as possible without regard to the other person. 

At the other end of the spectrum, fast-talking can be perceived as nervousness or having a lack of confidence. Fast talkers may be perceived as not knowing what we're talking about. It's as though we're rushing through our message because we feel uneasy. Speaking too fast is the opposite of a composed leadership presence.

2. You may lose your listeners' attention.

Another detrimental aspect of speaking too fast is that it may cause people to tune you out. It's like listening to the uninterrupted speech of a telemarketer. It's just too much work to try to keep up with the barrage of verbiage.

In his 2017 book The Art of Presenting: Your Competitive Edge, professor Raymond H. Hull of Wichita State University explains how fast talkers can speak at speeds that exceed the central nervous system's ability to fully understand what's being said unless we exert some concentrated effort.

When this happens, the audience might politely nod at what you're saying, but they're not engaged. They have checked out.

3. You can lose the clarity of your message.

Fast talking can lead to a lack of clear enunciation, articulation and an engaging tone, which can prevent your message from taking hold in the listener's mind. They may hear your words, but they may end up misunderstanding the full message.

How Do You Avoid Speaking Too Fast?

The following are five hacks to help you avoid speaking too fast. You can make these a part of your presenting toolkit.

1. Pauses are your ally.

If you're naturally a fast talker, artificially slowing down your speech when you're delivering a presentation may not work. For one thing, it could make you sound unnatural or wooden. It could also be stressful since it isn't your natural tempo.

One solution is to add pauses:

  • Add a short pause of about a second at the comma in a sentence.
  • Add a pause of two or three seconds at the end of your sentences.
  • Add a longer pause when you conclude a point before moving to your next point.

You can also add pauses just before you deliver a key statement, and after a major point when you want to strongly emphasize what you just said.

Consider adding frequent short pauses when you're talking about a topic that you know well: There may be a tendency to race through the material. This is especially important when talking to a non-expert or mixed audience.

When using pauses a part of your presentation style, try including pre-planned pauses in your script and rehearse as part of your practice.

2. Watch out for lists.

If you're enumerating a list of items that the audience is familiar with but that need to be mentioned, it's okay to speed through them.

But if you're listing items that are complex or new to the audience, it helps to add deliberate pauses after each item in the list. Better still, you can number each item to help you slow down so that the audience can grasp your message. Consider speaking in shorter sentences as well.

Take this statement for instance: "We offer an algorithm to decipher social messages, cloud-based software to scan documents and state-of-the-art search functionality that helps find relevant information quickly."

That's a lot of information for the audience to process if you're speaking too fast.

Instead, consider saying this: "The first feature we offer is an algorithm to decipher social messages." SHORT PAUSE. "The second feature is cloud-based software to scan documents." SHORT PAUSE. "The third item is state-of-the-art search functionality. This helps you find relevant information quickly." LONG PAUSE.

3. Connect with the audience.

Connecting with your audience is a strategy that could help you slow down a bit if you're used to speaking too fast.

One way to do this is by speaking only to eyes. Rather than darting your eyes all over the audience during your talk, try locking eyes with one person at a time as you speak. This can help you connect with that person as you deliver a point. You can then move to another person in the audience, lock eyes and deliver your next statement or two.

Making eye contact can help you tap into the audience. This can also help you get immediate feedback from their body language. Survey the room to glean if they're getting your message. Do you get the feeling that you need to slow down a little to explain a point you just made?

4. Use a pacing and timing device.

One of the most unnerving aspects of presenting is the fear of running out of time. This fear may cause you to speak too fast in an attempt to get everything in.

You can avoid this by using a pacing and timing app, or the timing feature on presentation remotes, to help you stay on track:

  • Speaker Clock is a countdown clock that shows big red LED digits. This lets you see the timer as you go through your presentation—even at great distances—so you are free to move around.
  • Presentation Timer Pro notifies you how much time you've got left so that you can make adjustments on the fly.
  • The Logitech Remote allows you to set timed milestones within the app and receive vibration alerts directly to your hand.
  • The Cannon Wireless Presenter Remote also allows you to set silent vibration alerts.

There are many options available today. Try doing a search to find one that works for you.

5. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

If you're prone to speaking too fast, you can help your audience grasp and remember your message better by using the power of repetition.

Try this: Introduce a key statement at the start of one of your important concepts, repeat it in the middle and repeat it again as a brief summary at the end.

You can have a well-thought-out and beautifully crafted message for your presentation. But if you speak too quickly, your audience may miss out on it. In a noisy, fast-paced business world, those who rise above the din of the crowd and speak in a way that gets their message heard can have a competitive advantage.

Read more articles on presenting.

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