Leadership English: Talk slower, get faster results

Photo: Cicero vs. Catiline/Wikipedia

WASHINGTON, November 26, 2013 – You can speak English quickly or slowly and still be understood. However, English offers an extraordinary range of expression, particularly if you take advantage of it.

Much of the power of the English language comes from the fact that it’s a stressed language. This means that speakers can take advantage of the inherent qualities of English like pitch, pace, volume, intonation, and pause. 

Almost everyone knows the disadvantage of speaking too slowly, mainly because they’ve had to endure it when listening to other speakers from time to time. But there are comparable problems with speaking too rapidly. This is true for both native speakers of English and speakers of English as a second language. 

Cicero denouncing Catiline, from an 1889 painting by Cesare Maccari. Cicero probably spoke very slowly and distinctly in this famous oration. (Wikipedia)

Be Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak 

In conversation, a relentless flow of continuous sound reduces your likelihood of success in communicating. Talking faster than your listeners can hear or comprehend means that you’ll lose their attention or receive inappropriate or unwanted responses. 

Think of words as water. Water can be cold or hot, and can exist as ice, liquid or gas. It can be poured or dripped. It can be a stream or a tsunami. We don’t always have control over water, but we can control our words. Isn’t it better to offer thirsty listeners a cool, refreshing glass of water than to blast them with a fire hose?

Speaking more slowly holds advantages for you as well as for your listener:

  • You sound like a more senior person.
  • You can control what you say.
  • You sound more authoritative and in charge.
  • You have more time to think.
  • You have more time to listen.
  • You can observe your listeners’ nonverbal responses.

Slow Down, You’re Moving Too Fast 

SEE RELATED: English as a Second Language: Colloquial expressions can be killers

Here are a week’s worth of tips on how to speak more slowly. Try one each day. If you make a reasonable effort, you’ll begin to notice a difference in the way you speak and present yourself by the end of a week. 

  • Pause briefly at logical units in sentences, such as the ends of phrases.
  • Pronounce your words; don’t skip consonants at the ends of words.
  • Open and close your mouth; use your lips, jaw, tongue, and teeth.
  • Make eye contact with your listener.
  • Stand up or sit up straight.
  • Speak in complete sentences.
  • Vary the structure and length of those sentences.

Variations on a familiar theme: Remember This if Nothing More 

If you remember nothing else from reading today’s article, remember this: the answer to retaining listener interest is variety. Yes, as a general rule, you should slow down when speaking to others. Yet in the end, your very best strength as a speaker, conversationalist, story teller, or salesperson comes from being able to consciously vary your pace, speaking more quickly or more slowly by choice. Why? 

  • Speaking more rapidly indicates excitement, passion, and emotion.
  • Speaking more slowly indicates that you are serious about your purpose and ideas. 

Keeping the audience with you emotionally might sometimes involve speaking faster to build interest and excitement. Keeping them with you intellectually might involve speaking more slowly. But neither high emotion nor a deeply intellectual tone can be maintained indefinitely. Constant hype can wear listeners out or cause them to miss the point. Constant, ponderous intellectualism can put them to sleep. 

That’s why variety is essential. You’re probably already speaking too quickly. Try teaching yourself to speak more slowly. 

Then mix it up. Try out your new skill at home, then with friends, and then with colleagues. Your personal approach to vocal variety will become a habit, then a skill, and then a style unique to you. Eventually you’ll be able to bring your new style to business meetings. You will be amazed at the attention your ideas receive.

Fran Ponick, MA, is certified in P-ESL (Pronouncing English as a Second Language) and provides training in business presentations and interpersonal conversation skills for native and non-native speakers of English. Her company, Leadership English™, offers communications skills, training and coaching for non-native and native English speakers, as well as award-winning writing and editorial services for businesses large and small.

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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from Amazon.com.


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