How to Adjust the Rate of Speech in Innovative Presentations

By Ray Anthony, Barbara Boyd

Rate of speech is how fast you talk in words per minute (wpm) and is an important component of innovative presentations. Rate of speech is also called speed, pace, tempo, and rhythm. The typical or average speech rate is about 125 wpm, and most people recommend that you speak between 110 to 180 wpm, although not consistently.

How can you tell if you speak within the 110 to 180 words-per-minute guideline? Read one or two pages of a prepared (scripted) speech or presentation out loud and time yourself for a minute. Count the words you read and divide it by 60 to get your average wpm.

A constant rate of speech almost always accompanies a dull, monotone speaking voice. Using an unvarying speed and pitch works great for a hypnotist (“you are getting very sleepy … ”), but it’s not so effective for a presenter. Like a fine passage of music, which alternates between speeding up and slowing down, your voice should vary in rate throughout your talk.

Changing your pace sounds more natural and makes your delivery come across more animated and conversational.

Fast talking at higher speeds can confuse an audience, make it difficult for them to concentrate, or just plain annoy them. Other than your attempts at vocal showmanship, speaking quickly during your presentation suggests nervousness, lack of confidence, irritability, or being rushed — the audience may get the impression you have somewhere else to be!

This feeling is magnified when you accompany fast talking with poor eye contact, stiff posture, and lack of gestures. Worse, with certain glib personality types, fast talking can be perceived as slick or smarmy. However, when combined with sincere smiling, meaningful gestures, and effective eye contact, a somewhat faster pace indicates enthusiasm, excitement, and enjoyment.

The term fast is relative: Trisha Paytas, a model and actress from Los Angeles, has a black belt in fast talking. She set a world record by speaking (if you call it that) 710 words in only 54 seconds! It sounds like gibberish until you slow down the recording and find her articulation is nearly flawless!

Don’t pack your presentation with overflowing information if you have a limited amount of time. That forces you to rush through your presentation by talking fast and furiously.

Varying your speaking rate in a presentation is like shifting gears in a car — you use each speed for a purpose as the situation and needs dictate: starting out, going up hill, straightaway cruising, speeding up to pass, or coming to a stop.