Should you actually slow down your speech when you present?

by Pierre Morsa

“You have to speak slower!”

This advice is a staple of oratory coaching. But I think it is sometimes given by coaches without thinking about the consequences, and that it can actually do more bad than good. Let me explain why.

The first reason is simply that not every speaker needs to speak slowly. Speaking slowly is done for several reasons, such as increasing the perceived gravitas (authority) or allowing the public to digest complex information more easily. But sometimes it’s simply not necessary and may actually reduce the effectiveness of the speech. If speaking fast is not detrimental to the clarity of the speech—that is, every word is easy to understand—and as long as the speed doesn’t make the amount of information unbearable for the listener, the first priority of a coach may not be to force a speaker to consciously slow down.

The second reason is that some people can be completely destabilized when forced to speak slower. It breaks a lot of things: the rhythm, the way words are articulated, the intonation, the energy in the voice, the link between the mouth muscles and the brain. This is why people who try to slow down may sound so awkward and unnatural. They are not used to it. It’s relatively easy to speak slower, it’s very hard to do so and remain natural and authentic.

The third reason why speaking slowly may not be good advice is that it may not be that relevant after all. The average speed at which orators speak has increased over time. Listen to a speech from Churchill, Martin Luther King or General de Gaulle and compare it to a recent speech, you should easily hear the dramatic difference in pace. Modern speeches tend to be delivered faster. Modern adverts or YouTubers speak even faster, yet manage to catch our attention and communicate clearly. Our era is so crowded with distractions every second of attention has become a luxury that cannot be wasted.

For master speakers, the ability to slow down or pick up pace naturally is extremely valuable, but it requires a lot of work and dedication. When there is little time to prepare, it’s more important to teach a speaker how to remain natural, authentic and passionate, and this is achieved much more easily by teaching how to speak in sync with the audience than to force someone to consciously slow down.

Snail Slow