Why talking quickly takes your nowhere fast (and what to do about it)

Photo credit: Morgane Le Breton

As a communications trainer, there is one piece of advice that I find myself offering up more than any other. It’s also a piece of advice that I find the hardest to implement.

Slow down.

Rapid-fire delivery is one of the most common crimes committed by speakers, be it on stage, in interviews, or in general conversations. It is also one of the most likely reasons why your communication efforts may not be having the desired impact.

Just because you can speak quickly, that doesn’t mean your audience can listen quickly. And there is no chance they will retain or be influenced by what you’re saying if they can’t keep up with you.

I know this from the repeated experience of being on the receiving end of fast talkers. As a journalist who sometimes records interviews, I’ve heard things in the recordings that I never heard the during the interview. I’ve even asked questions that had been already answered earlier.

When you speak quickly, your listener will hear a few components of what you have to say, but they are unlikely to retain much of value. Like a stone skipping across a pond, you offer no chance for your words to sink in.

Listening is not a passive process (Oscar Trimboli can tell you a lot more about that).

When a person is listening, they are also often learning something new, and trying to assimilate that knowledge with what they already know. By speaking too quickly, you fail to give your audience time to absorb what you are saying, which can lead to them falling behind and quickly losing interest.

Fast speakers have offered me plenty of excuses for their rapid-fire delivery. For some, it is a habit they developed early in life that they have found hard to break. For others, fast speaking arises from nervousness, and the feeling they need to say everything they need to say before they forget it. And for some, it comes about simply because they are excited and have a lot to say and are trying to cram in as much information in as possible (which is the excuse I most often give myself).

None of these excuses alleviate the suffering of the audience, and no matter what the reason, fast speaking will always mean you are less likely to influence your audience in the way you wanted to.

Unfortunately, there is no fast remedy for fast speaking, other than enforcing a stricter discipline over your delivery speed. Trust me, I’ve looked.

There are however some techniques you can use to make things easier for yourself and your audience.

The first is to pause every now and again. This works especially well on stage by providing a moment for your audience to catch up.

The second is to repeat the things you most want your audience to hear. This tends to also work best in presentations, but can also be used to great effect in interviews or even conversations – just don’t overdo it. You might also want to come back to key ideas several times in different ways (for instance, placing them in context using examples) to ensure they sink in.

Neither strategy is as good as simply slowing down though, and that means being conscious of your speed of delivery and taking the steps needed to moderate your flow.

The great thing is, slowing down not only helps you’re audience, but it also gives you greater control over what you are saying. Slowing down enables you to think further ahead, as your brain is able to catch up to (or get ahead of) the words coming out of your mouth. This means you can start to guide the discussion, and you can also buy yourself the cognitive capacity to pay more attention to your audience and their non-verbal responses.

And you also are likely to become more economical with your use of words. Faster speakers tend to use more words than they need, as they are using ‘verbal polystyrene’ to pad out what they are saying and buy time to think about what they really want to say.

Slowing down gives you more time to think about what you are saying, which can see you using less words to say exactly what you need to say in the same time it would take if you were talking quickly.

Most importantly, slowing down creates a better experience for the audience – and that is crucial if you truly want your words to have any chance of changing the way they think, feel, or behave.