You don’t have to slow down to be an effective presenter

by Olivia Mitchell

Have you been told to slow down when you’re presenting?

There’s only one legitimate reason for slowing down. That’s if you go so fast that your words get blurred. Otherwise there’s nothing wrong with speaking fast. Watch this video of Gary Vaynerchuk – would you want him to slow down?

This is the way Gary speaks. He’s being himself.

If you’re a naturally fast speaker and you try and slow yourself down, you won’t be being yourself. It will be an effort for you and you’re unlikely to come across as natural and conversational. Speak the way you normally would in a conversation.

There’s just one difference. In a conversation, you pause to let the other person respond. But in a presentation,  you’re the only one talking. So there’s one thing you have to add in – pauses. Gary is in control of his speed. He can pause when he wants to.

Why are the pauses useful?

  1. The audience can process what you’ve said
  2. It gives you time to think about what you’re going to say next.

But, there’s one problem with pausing – it’s  difficult to remember to do it. Presentation coaches sometimes advise that you mark up a script with where you want to pause, or advise you to count during the pause. That’s difficult when you’re in the heat of presenting, and it’s unlikely to have you talking in a natural conversational manner. So forget thinking about pausing.

Instead think chunking.

Chunking is talking in chunks of words. Tony Blair is a great demonstrator of chunking. Watch this video and note that he speaks fast but in small chunks with silence in between the chunks:

Try out chunking by reading something out loud. Copy Tony Blair’s rhythm. Then try it out in normal conversation. It will feel odd to begin with – that’s normal when you try something new. Once you’ve go the hang of it, use it the next time you present. You’ll be able to speak at your normal speed, which means you’ll be your natural and energetic self. And you’ll also give yourself time to think, and your audience time to process.

 

Credit: My partner and gifted presentation coach, Tony Burns, came up with the concept of chunking.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Sacha Chua April 25, 2009 at 1:03 am

That’s such a relief – and thanks for sharing such inspiring videos! =D

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Olivia Mitchell April 25, 2009 at 8:41 am

Hi Sacha
Yes, it is a relief. It’s nice to know that you can just be yourself. Thanks for your note about the videos. They’re very different – in style and language – but make the points nicely. Olivia

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Travis Dahle April 25, 2009 at 1:23 am

Being a former Policy Debater and a policy debate coach for many years I have a tendency to talk fast. Thankfully, I am pretty clear and it works for me, but its nice to know other people agree that you can talk a little faster as long as you are clear. I do like your suggestion on chunking! I have always like the way Tony Blair talked (especially when he gave a speech to parliament, much more entertaining than our congress).

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Olivia Mitchell April 25, 2009 at 8:43 am

Hi Travis
I agree that the main thing is that you’re clear – that the audience can understand you and grasp what you’re saying. And faster has energy. Olivia

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Jeff Bailey April 25, 2009 at 9:12 am

Hi Olivia,

Interesting post…

If someone naturally speaks fast then it may not be a problem. Speaking rapidly is a problem when presenting to people who don’t share the speaker’s language as their primary language.

One problem with speaking fast is that it is a sign of nervousness. In this case a nervous speaker makes for an uncomfortable audience.

In my world, technical presentations, it can be a sign that the speaker may not be on top of the content.

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Olivia Mitchell April 25, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Hi Jeff

When the presenter and the audience don’t share the same primary language then there can be issues with speaking fast. Sometimes longer silences are required to allow the audience to process the different pronounciation. But speaking slightly slower may also be required.

Yes, some nervous speakers do speak fast. In which case, the remedy is to reduce the nervousness, not get the speaker to talk slower. For those who get nervous, the most effective way to reduce your nerves is to use the techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). For more information see http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/overcome-fear-public-speaking/.

Thanks, Jeff, for bringing up these issues.

Olivia

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Jeff Bailey April 25, 2009 at 2:16 pm

I just watched the video. I don’t think that he is speaking too fast. I have heard people who talked so fast that it sounded like a buzz saw. Gary doesn’t have that problem.

On the other hand, I found the pacing back and forth very distracting. Plus, he wasn’t making meaningful eye contact. He was very effective when he stopped moving and knelt down. His eye contact was good at that point. It was a great connecting moment for him. He either needs to learn to move with purpose or simply stand still and present.

One note about my comment above: Learn how to channel the nervousness in positive directions and the nerve induced rapid speaking tends to sort itself out.

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Olivia Mitchell April 26, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Your comments about some aspects of Gary’s style are interesting. I get that the pacing up and down can be distracting. But I think that overall Gary is a totally compelling speaker. Sure, there are aspects of his style that could be tinkered with to make him, possibly, even better. But I’m not sure that I would want to. If we fix everybody to abide by the guidelines of public speaking, we might end up with everybody looking and sounding the same. Those guidelines are there to help people who are not yet compelling and need help to get there. But when somebody is undeniably authentic and passionate and gets a message across, I’m for leaving them alone!

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Olivia Mitchell April 26, 2009 at 9:20 pm

There’s a similar discussion on the Pro Humorist blog http://prohumorist.com/?p=171. Olivia

Steve Drake April 27, 2009 at 3:21 am

First, Gary’s presentation was very inspirational. And he is a compelling speaker. (I forwarded it to my entire staff not just for the style but for the substance.)

Agree with Jeff that Gary’s constant pacing was distracting.

And, after sending it to my staff, I realized I should have put a warning with it about the heavy use of profanity.

As a speaker with a naturally fast delivery, I valued the ideas … especially the “chunking technique.”

Steve (causeaholic)

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Olivia Mitchell April 27, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Hi Steve

Glad you find the chunking useful. It is tremendously freeing for naturally fast speakers who have been told repeatedly to slow down. Practice it in normal conversation so that it becomes natural for you – then you’ll be able to use it easily in your next presentation. Olivia

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Chris Witt April 28, 2009 at 9:57 am

Olivia,

My father, who was blind, had a devise that let him speed up the pace of his books on tape without making the narrator sound like a chipmunk. It’s what made me realize that I enjoy speakers who talk a little faster than usual.

But I’ve noticed that really fast speakers can overwhelm me even when they’re clear and even when they pause at times for emphasis. It’s as if they’re packing 80 to 90 minutes of material into a 45-minute time slot. It’s more than I can absorb. I need to pause to catch my breath even if they don’t.

Chris

PS I love your comments about not forcing everyone into the same mold. The point of coaching, as far as I’m concerned, is to bring out an individual’s unique gifts — to make that person the best speaker she/he can be.

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Olivia Mitchell April 28, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Hi Chris

Yes, fast speakers can be overwhelming. The key to chunking is that it is not just pausing for emphasis – it’s building a rhythmic cadence into the way that you speak. So the pauses may occur 2 to 3 times in a sentence – but the speaker doesn’t have to think about pausing, they just get into that rhythm and the pauses will happen naturally and often. That way the audience will have the time to process the information.

Thanks for your comments about coaching. My sense is that more and more presentation coaches are taking this approach – that there’s not just one mold to be an effective speaker. Olivia

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NancyF April 28, 2009 at 12:00 pm

In a previous life I was a fulltime interpreter educator (especially for sign language interpreters). When less experienced interpreters complained about speakers going too fast, I reminded everyone to pay attention to the breathing: speakers need to breathe. That’s your chance to catch up.

I think the same advice holds for speakers. I agree that it’s hard to retrain yourself to speak more slowly (guilty as charged), but it’s often possible to pause slightly longer than you might otherwise. Remember pause time is also review time: the audience is processing what you’re saying and a bit of a pause gives them a chance to get your message. Think of vocal repetition as another technique that accomplishes much the same thing: it emphasizes a bit of your message and lets people know you really care about that point.

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Olivia Mitchell April 28, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Hi Nancy

It’s useful to get your perspective from working with interpreters. I like your suggestion that repetition also allows your audience to process more thoroughly. Olivia

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Todd April 28, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Hi Olivia,

This was another insightful post. Overall, I agree with you about the speed. If people can understand you, it’s fine if you talk quickly (Many in my Toastmaster district would cringe if they saw me writing these words.)

I agree that Gary V. is a very inspirational speaker. He speaks quickly, but he often uses pauses effectively. I don’t think it’s intentional, it just is part of his nature. I think some coaching might help him a little bit, but I don’t think it would make a significant difference. His energy and passion are what make him effective.

I don’t particularly care for the “chunking” style. Perhaps it is because former President George W. Bush used it, too (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTRbG2daGqo ). To me, it is synonymous with poor reading skills. However, I admit that former Prime Minister Blair uses it far more effectively.

Todd

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Olivia Mitchell April 28, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Hi Todd,

Thanks for your comments. I watched the video of George Bush. Both the video examples we have of chunking come from speakers who are reading their speeches – which makes it more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the chunking itself. I think George Bush is making an OK job of reading his speech. He generally stops talking when he’s looks at his notes. It would be even better if he finished the phrase with his eyes up and didn’t start talking again until he his eyes were up again. But I’ve seen a lot worse.

I’ll try and find a video where a speaker is chunking (but not reading from a script like Blair and Bush) – it will be interesting to get your assessment of that. Olivia

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Olivia Mitchell May 8, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Hi Todd

I’ve just found a video of a speaker chunking – but not reading from a script like Tony Blair. It’s Terry Hawkins who is a professional speaker from Australia. Here’s the link:
http://www.terryhawkins.com.au/terry_hawkins.php

It’s a promotional video so it’s not ideal – but you’ll definitely see the chunking in action.

Olivia

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Pat McCann April 29, 2009 at 8:40 am

(My first visit via Linkdin) – You may not have to slow down, but it sure helps. I like this speaker’s energy, but almost nothing else about his act. I can see he was addressing an audience of web entrepreneurs, but the fact that even they had no questions for him at the end of his presentation lets me know he missed quite a few of them. Speaking fast is fine – ask anyone here in Chicago – but you have to pause to let the audience in and give them a second or two to process what you have to say. Thanks.

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Olivia Mitchell April 29, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Thanks Pat for visiting the site – I hope you found some useful stuff. I take on what you say about Gary – he is very “out there”. That means not everyone is going to like his style. Having watched many videos of him (he has made many, many internet videos as part of his Wine Library TV), he’s being himself – it’s not an act. He’s passionate and opinionated and that means he may put some people off – but he does have impact.

Let me make a distinction between slowing down and pausing and chunking. Slowing down means slowing down the arrival of every word..this..is ..a ..strain..for someone..who..naturally…talks..fast. It can also get boring for the audience. Pausing has you insert silences after every bunch of words. So you speak that particular bunch of words at the same pace as you normally do, but have a silent break, before the next bunch of words. As you say that has the audience process what you’ve just said.

The beauty of chunking, is that it is a rhythm that you can get into with pauses built in, and therefore you no longer have to think, “I should pause now” – it becomes a natural part of your rhythm.

Olivia

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Pat McCann May 1, 2009 at 5:39 am

Thanks, Olivia – I’m on my way to train senior managers at a major corporation on presentation skills today. Some of them are not native English speakers, so I work with distinctions around pausing. As you suggest, asking them to slow down each word would be a dreadful and fruitless exercise. I’ll be thinking of “chunking” throughout our conversations tomorrow.

Pat

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Olivia Mitchell May 1, 2009 at 9:57 am

Go well with your presentation skills training, Pat. Practice chunking yourself so that you can demonstrate it. You may have to do it in an exaggerated way so that they get it. Also let people know that they will feel uncomfortable art first because it’s different to their normal way of speaking. Olivia

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Kevin Kane January 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Jim Collins is a good “chunker.”

A good example is his narration in the audio-book edition of “Good to Great.”

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shafique November 26, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Hi, thanks for the lovely videos about chunking. With this we can talk clearly……..

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