Week 2

2.01 - Rate of Speech

Think of a time that you’ve had to get up in front of a group of people and talk. Maybe it was a board meeting, a classroom setting, a presentation to a group of peers, or even your best friend’s wedding. Right before you got up to speak, did you think “I just can’t wait to get this over with?” If you did, rest assured that you’re not alone. The majority of people have a tendency to speak much faster when they get up in front of a crowd, for a few different reasons.

Two of the biggest factors are nerves and the natural tendency to want to be finished as quickly as possible. The problem with speeding up your speech in front of a crowd is that you can become hard to understand and may even stumble over your own words, making the whole situation more difficult than it was to begin with. So, with all that being said, let’s delve into rate of speech norms.


What is a typical rate of speech?

For most people, conversational speech falls in somewhere between 150-180 words per minute (WPM), with 180 being a little fast. The average speaker in a TED talk falls at right about 163 WPM. Speaking at this rate is quick enough to hold the interest of the crowd, while slow enough to seem conversational and natural. It’s easy to ramp your rate of speech up above 180 WPM, or even fall below 150 WPM, if you aren’t focusing on monitoring your rate.


Why am I speaking faster or slower than the norm?

One of the biggest influences of your rate of speech is simply the culture that you’re raised in. Is American English your first language? Who you grow up with, where you grow up, and what you do for a living can all have an effect on your rate of speech - this is totally normal. Some other factors are the complexity of your sentences, mental fatigue, where you place your pauses, and how you’re feeling at the time that you’re speaking. Longer complex sentences and difficult words can cause you to slow your speech too much, while a combination of nerves and quick sentences can lead to imprecise pronunciation.


How can I find and correct my rate of speech?

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The most accurate way to figure out your rate of speech is to have someone record you giving a speech or presentation, and then analyze your speech for an average WPM count. However, this is tedious and complicated, although it can give you a clear view of what your speech patterns are and how you can improve them. You can also read aloud a reading passage in a conversational manner. Count up the words of the passage and time yourself for 30 seconds or a minute (calculate accordingly). You can then determine your rate. Listen to some of these examples of varying rates:

Teach yourself to either speed up or slow down by trying a variety of different strategies. To slow down, stretch out your vowels so your message does not become clipped or choppy (" I will caaaall you at niiiine"). Speak in phrases and insert pauses at appropriate places ("I will meet you / in the conference room / at 3:00 today"). This will help keep your message intact. If you have notes, consider putting a reminder in to slow down or speed up, depending on your normal rate. Add pauses for emphasis or to change things up.

If you’re still having trouble or feel that your speech isn’t coming across as intended, it may be time to talk to a communication coach. Contact us to learn more about modifying your rate of speech.


2.02 - Speak with Authority

Speaking with an authoritative voice can be a real challenge, no matter who you are. Sometimes it can feel like walking a tightrope. If you go too far one way and end up sounding meek, you lose your credibility. Leaning too far the other direction can leave you sounding angry or irrational. It’s necessary to find that perfect balance of calm, yet firm speech to assert your authority and get people to listen.

The question that plagues speakers is how to achieve that balance. Which physical and vocal cues will help to demonstrate your authority to a person or group of people? There are a few different things you can do – some physical and some vocal - to demonstrate authority. Let’s start with your voice!


Vocal Authority

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  1. First, harness the power of a strong pause. Learning where to put a pause in a sentence will make people listen and take note. If your sentence is short, try adding a strong pause halfway through your sentence. An example would be, “Let’s go to the meeting (pause) right now.” For longer sentences, try two pauses in similar places in order to get your point across. Pausing will also eliminate those word fillers.

  2. Emphasize the last words before the pause. This is where the tightrope walk comes in. You never want to sound angry when you’re emphasizing a word, so avoid just making the word louder. Instead, make an effort to place vocal emphasis on the word by raising the pitch, holding it out longer, and making it louder. Remember to stay calm, cool, and collected and drop your pitch at the end of your sentence.

  3. Use clear pronunciation and keep your tone even. When I say even, I don't mean monotone. We need vocal variety! Make sure you’re maintaining your emotional level, but still placing emphasis on important words and points. Speak clearly and naturally.


Physical Authority

  1. Own the room. Whenever you’re speaking to a group of people, make sure that you walk into a room like it’s yours. Meekly entering a room, making self-deprecating jokes, or acting nervous is a way to immediately demean your authority. Be a strong presence in the room by keeping your head up, making eye contact, and sitting toward the front of the room if you’re in a meeting.

  2. Power pose! Stand in a way that makes you feel powerful and authoritative. Make sure you try it out at home before you get up in front of a group of people, but it’s much easier to give off an aura of authority when you feel physically strong.

  3. Avoid pacing while talking. Your audience will see it as a distraction, much like you'd be distracted by someone sitting next to you shaking his/her leg. Moving naturally, on the other hand, brings energy to what you are saying. Just move in a way that is natural to you, the way you would if you were talking to a friend.


2.03 - Caring for your Voice

While communication is multi-faceted, the largest way that the hearing community communicates is through our voices. Think about how much you talk every day. You probably say good morning to a few co-workers, present in meetings, talk about your day with your loved ones, order food, etc. We spend a lot of time using our vocal cords, but very little time caring for them. Why do some politicians lose their voices on the campaign trail? Do you ever wonder how famous singers are able to put on shows night after night? They must know how to take good care of their voices! Below are some tips for keeping your vocal cords in top shape, too.


Caring for Your Vocal Cords

  • Drink lots of water. You should be drinking 6-8 glasses per day anyway for good overall health, but staying hydrated is also helpful for your vocal cords.
  • Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. Caffeine and alcohol dehydrate your vocal cords. Compensate by drinking plenty of water.
  • Invest in a good humidifier. Winter months can dry you out from head to toe. A humidifier will keep your vocal cords hydrated and (as an added bonus) makes winter colds a little more bearable. If you are traveling and at a hotel, steam up the bathroom for added humidification. Air travel dehydrates you and your vocal cords!
  • Eat lots of fruits and veggies, and take supplements if you aren’t getting enough vitamins.
  • Avoid getting sick. While this is easier said than done, regularly washing your hands and being aware of your environment can help you stay healthy during flu season. That being said…
  • Rest your voice if you do get sick. Don’t strain your vocal cords or try to talk when you’ve “lost” it. You may damage your vocal cords. Speak in a soft breathy voice if you need to talk. If you do take antihistamines, remember that they will also dry out your vocal cords, so make sure to re-hydrate with plenty of water.
  • Try to keep your voice at a reasonable level. Talking loudly, cheering at sporting events, speaking over noise in a bar or party, or even loud whispering can cause undue strain to your voice.
  • Before speaking engagements, avoid milk products (they coat your throat), nuts and popcorn (you can cough on them and become hoarse), and carbonated beverages (you certainly don't want to belch while presenting!)
  • Avoid excessive throat clearly. You may feel you need to clear the phlegm, but throat clearing can further injure your vocal cords. Try to gently clear your throat if necessary.
  • If you have reflux (GERD), there can be detrimental effects on your vocal cords. Follow your doctor's recommendations to avoid acid from spilling over onto your vocal cords when you sleep. Do not eat right before bedtime, avoid spicy foods, and elevate the head of your bed.
  • Don’t smoke! This is a good practice in general. Smoking irritates your vocal folds, causes coughing, voice changes, and in a worst case scenario, can cause laryngeal or lung cancer.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid abusing your voice when at all possible. Take an inventory of your behaviors and find ways to minimize any of your daily abuses. Monitor what you ingest; beverages, foods, and medication. Drink your problems away with plenty of water!

If your job requires you to speak all day, take vocal naps or breaks where you can rest your voice. If you have longstanding hoarseness or vocal difficulty, see an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) doctor. You may want to consider voice therapy in conjunction with the tips above. A Speech and Language Pathologist can teach you the best way to care for your voice effectively and to use it in a way that won’t cause damage. Speech and Language Pathologists can also work with you on general voice improvement, accent modification, better public speaking methods, executive coaching, and more. If you’d like to learn how to take better care of your voice, give us a call.

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