Are you worried that you talk too fast when you give a speech, talk, or presentation?
In this episode, I give you simple, practical tips that I’ve used to successfully improve the way I give presentations. Four years ago, I got frustrated feedback from listeners who had a hard time keeping up with my mouth; now I get congratulations that the pace was great.
Audio version (18 minutes)
Video version (18 minutes)
Transcript of this episode
Please forgive errors in grammar and punctuation: robots helped create this transcript. And I’ve never diagrammed a sentence in my life, unless drawing dinosaurs count.
Welcome to Dear SQL DBA, a podcast that’s *usually* for SQL server developers and database administrators. I’m Kendra Little from LittleKendra.com.
Now, I think at the end of last week’s podcast, I may have promised a technical topic this week. But I got a great question that isn’t technical from a listener, and I just wanted to talk about it this week. It’s a great time for me to talk about it!
So I’m talking about slowing down your motor mouth: presentation tips for fast talkers.
The question that came up from a listener in conversation was…
When I’m giving a presentation, I’ve gotten feedback that I’m going too fast. What are tips that can help me successfully slow down without making it too slow, or making it weird for the audience?
This is a question that I know a lot about, because I myself have gotten that feedback!
But the cool thing is, I just got my feedback from the SQL PASS Summit that was held in Seattle this year, and on my feedback there was one thing that WASN’T there.
No one at all mentioned that I went too fast. No one said I went too slow, either.
People actually said they liked the pacing, and for me this was really huge, because three years ago / four years ago, I was getting comments that said I spoke too quickly.
I thought about not recording this topic and just writing a blog post
Because obviously, I may speak too fast! Recording a vocal podcast about pacing is a risky business. But I thought about it and I realized: you know, no matter how I do, I have to do WAY BETTER than I would have done four years ago!
This is about progress, not necessarily perfection. And I definitely have tips that can really help you make progress on slowing down and enjoying it while you present.
What does “go slower” really mean?
I know from experience that when you get this feedback about speaking too quickly, you understand the concept of it, but it’s hard to think about actually executing it. Because if you just try to talk slowly, it gets kind… of… weird… and… you sort… of… get… this… monotone… you know like you’re talking… to… an… inanimate… object.
Trying to just slow down and, focusing on that slow thing: it’s hard to do it in a way that is graceful! And it’s kind of missing the point. When we say you’re talking too fast, the solution often isn’t just about slowing down the space between individual words.
I think it was Paul Randal who really helped me think about this
I think I read a blog post from Paul where he mentioned that when he is doing pacing in his talks, he thinks about people who don’t speak the language he’s speaking as their primary language. They’re fluent, but it’s not their primary language.
That helped me think about it in a different way. Now, I’m not great with languages, but I do know that you know when you’re in a language that’s not your own, it isn’t necessarily the speed between the words that’s that important. Often pauses at the end of a sentence, or at the end of a concept, give you time to help put the words in order in your head and catch up and get the concept to come together.
So pacing is about not only the meter of the individual words, but also the breaks and the rests that you give people. It isn’t only people who don’t share a primary language with you that the pauses help. Even if I’m speaking in English, and my listeners' primary language is English, if I can give pauses at the right point, that helps them have time to reflect. Have time to assimilate different concepts, figure out how their experiences relate to those concepts. It helps them connect with me.
It’s not just the power of the words, the pauses between the words are really helpful for your listeners.
There was actually a great person at Speaker Idol– Jonathan Stewart-- who talked about these silences, and and his talk was about allowing white space: both on a screen – on a dashboard, perhaps a technical dashboard – but also, he gave audible / verbal examples of allowing white space in your words to help your listeners.
Effectively integrating pauses and making change: sticky notes
So when I’m speaking, what are practical ways that I can actually remember to do this, to help me execute on this? Because just understanding the concept of, “You need to try to allow pauses,” is one thing. But how do I integrate it?
Well, one thing that’s really helped me is little notes. Little sticky notes.
I have multiple tips. bit I wouldn’t try all of them at once.
I would get a sticky note and just focus on ONE of them for your next talk.
What I do is, I put the sticky note – I always use a laptop when I present, and the audience can’t see the screen of the laptop, right? They see the back of my laptop. So I just put the sticky note at the top of the laptop where I can see it. The sticky note is the reminder of the thing I want to work on. Because I’m gonna glance at that laptop screen as I go.
1: Control your breathing
The first thing that I started working on with presenting, when I was trying to slow down, was controlling my breath.
At first when you’re speaking, on your very first speech, just remembering to breathe means you’ve succeeded! You know, the first time you’re speaking, I wouldn’t worry about too much of this stuff. When you’re on your FIRST talk, you just get through it and then celebrate completion!
But when you start fine-tuning it, taking deep breaths and breathing deeply and comfortably, and pausing to take a deep breath can really give you that moment between sentences.
Use that moment to prepare for what you’re gonna say next. At first when you’re in front of people, it’s really hard to think. As you just practice that breathing, you start figuring out – oh I DO have time to actually consciously think about what I’m gonna say, instead of just Auto- Speaking as I move through it.
So my first sticky note that I ever used, just said ‘BREATHE’ on it. By breathe, I I really mean take a DEEP breath. A good inhale / exhale.
2. Stop to drink water
The second thing is: take some time to drink water.
Once you’re really comfortable with breathing, and you want to work on your pacing more, it is perfectly fine to stop your talk and pick up a bottle of water or a cup of water, and take a sip.
It gives your audience that moment while you’re doing it. It gives you a break.
Water is quite helpful when speaking: especially in half hour or hour long talks, you get kind of dehydrated at the end of it! Drinking water before the talk, and then taking time IN the talk to drink water is often helpful. It naturally gets you used to giving the audience a moment.
It doesn’t always necessarily work on audio podcasts– not necessarily saying that– but when you’re on a stage, and if you’re speaking at a conference or a more casual event, stopping to take a drink of water can really really help. I find it just makes me feel more relaxed, more at home. The water is literally quite refreshing.
3. Bring a cup of warm tea, and use that as well
Sometimes I do tea instead. I try not to bring up too many caffeinated beverages, because this will eventually backfire on me regarding talking speed.
I sometimes like to have– especially in like an hour-long talk or more– a water AND a tea, and I’ll alternate between them. That actually gives me a sense of comfort, relaxation. I like herbal tea, that kind of soothes my throat.
If you just go with coffee, and your goal is to have a relaxed, enjoyable pace, you may find that the caffeine pushes you in the wrong direction. If it is something that just makes you feel comfortable, you could switch it off with the water and and not take in too much but I think that absolutely a warm beverage can really help.
4. Pause, survey the room, and make eye contact
Another thing that I have started challenging myself to do is to pause and make eye contact with different people in the audience.
If you have kind of a wide room, or a deep room, looking around, meeting different people’s eyes, seeing if there’s people I recognize– and if there is someone I recognize sometimes even waving to them.
The timing of this is important, though: in a really short talk there might not be good spacing for this. But if you’re speaking for half an hour or an hour. often there’s a time in your talk when you’ve come through the completion of a concept, or a section – you don’t want it to be a time when — you don’t want a big pause when you’re doing something like switching between a demo or another screen, for example.
You don’t want a pause that makes it seem like, “Uh oh I have nothing to say,” right?
To make this pause feel more natural for the audience, this eye contact thing helps. Looking around and making eye contact seems friendly and open at the end of a concept. It gives the audience an opening where they can not only think about what you’ve discussed, but they can raise their hand and ask questions without feeling like they’re interrupting you. You want to make this the right length–it’s an art— you have to practice and get used to it, not too long, not too short.
This is one of those things that when I when I felt comfortable with the breathing, when I felt comfortable drinking water on stage, maybe a little bit of tea, I started saying: “Okay well let’s see. I’ve got an hour-long talk, I’m gonna see if I can fit in three times during the talk– I have three different subjects that I wrap up, where I look around the room and smile, inviting people if they have questions to ask them. If they don’t, I’ll keep going after.”
5. Integrate smiles into your pauses
It’s a little hard at first to smile into a silence. But it can really work.
Smiling when you’re speaking is also good, but taking a moment when you are breathing, or just before you drink that water, or when you’re making eye contact, to smile at your audience helps them feel that you are comfortable with the moment. You’re comfortable with the pausing. And it mentally gives them that that feeling of, “I am welcome to ask a question if I want.”
I still sometimes put a sticky note on my little monitor – and maybe it just has a drawing of a smiley face on it.
I saw this tip years ago in a couple different places online, when I was looking for tips for presenting on video: lots of folks out there say that people like to watch videos of people who are smiling.
When you see a smiling face it naturally helps you feel happier. It’s just a human thing.
So you as the presenter, if you put a little sticky note with a smiley face– it can be a crude drawing– it will help you smile at the camera or at your audience. You don’t even have to write the word “smiley”, any crude smiley face can do.
6. Practice landing the talk gracefully (even when you’re behind schedule)
Perhaps one of the hardest things of all when it comes to pacing, though is the end of the talk if you are running behind. I personally like to write down when my finish time is supposed to be on a piece of paper and leave it on the desk. I don’t tend to do it as a sticky note, I just tend to throw it on the desk or a table if I have one. Because I don’t always remember what time is this thing supposed to end!
As I’m going through my presentation, and I’m either occasionally catching sight of a clock on the wall, or seeing what time it is on my PowerPoint screen, and I know I’m approaching that finish, the natural tendency if you’re behind can be to speed up. Talk faster. Keep going! oh-I’ve-got-to-get-there-I’ve-gotta go!
And that’s the hardest time to pace. It’s a really tricky time!
If you start speeding up nearing the end of your talk, it makes sure audience feel even more nervous because, they probably know what time it is, too. Maybe they have somewhere to go next. If you speed up at the same time they’re already starting to look at their watches, it just increases this feeling of tension for them. It’s harder for them to listen to you.
At the end of your talk, it’s more important than ever to think about, “I want to land this gently.”
When I picture, okay how how does my talk go? Sometimes at the end you feel like you’re at the end of a race. But that’s really NOT the feeling you want at the end of the talk. It’s like you’ve got a seaplane and you just want to make a nice gentle landing on the water.
Maybe that means you end up skipping some slides. You can practice with a projector: there are some ways that you can skip slides that are more graceful than others.
You could arrow through them quickly, but that gives that audience the sense that they’re missing something. This statement, “you’re going too fast,” is another way of saying, “we feel like we’re missing something,” right? Just speeding through slides can do that.
So depending on your presentation tool, or whether or not you’re using slides or notes, practice!
If I’m nearing the end and I need to skip ahead, with my setup: what is the most graceful way I can do that? If you practice it a few times you’ll feel much more comfortable when you’re coming into the end, because you know you’ve got a plan B. “Okay I can hit this button, and then that button, and I’m close to the end– I can land it gracefully for the audience.”
It really is a matter of experience and practice.
Recap time: here’s your homework
- So get the sticky notes! Think first about breathing, controlling your breath.
- If you’re doing longer talks, consider working in pauses to drink water, possibly get some tea to help keep your throat warm.
- Think also about if people don’t speak your language as their primary language, what will help them get into the talk and understand it?
- For people who it is their primary language, what moments will help them put all those thoughts together in their head?
- Challenge yourself: for however many times is optimal during your length of presentation, to look around the room, make eye contact with different people while you you pause, and also to smile at them as you make eye contact. Not necessarily gluing on to their eyes for too long, keep things moving and being friendly and open, while you do a purposeful pause that invites questions.
Remember that silence can make it much more compelling to keep listening to you by giving people a moment. By giving people a little room, we can actually help draw them into the talk and help keep them invested with us as we go on that journey towards our goal at the end… which is always a gentle, soft comfortable landing, where people feel, “Yeah we got we really got into stuff! I liked the time that we took to go over everything.”
Those are my tips from a person who– when I get excited I am still a bit of a motor mouth! But I have made so much progress, and I know that you can too.
Thanks for joining me for Dear SQL DBA. I’m Kendra Little from LittleKendra.com. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in in the United States who is celebrating, and to everyone else who’s celebrating too. I’ll talk to you soon!