Updated: May 27, 2019
If you google ‘how do I stop talking so fast?’ there seems to be endless advice offering tricks and tips to slow down. And as a former fast speaker (turned professional voice coach) you have to be savvy.
I assume that if you’re reading this you’ve tried and failed to slow down your speech or you have no idea where to start.
Whatever the reason, have you ever wondered why some people speak fast?
Or whether speaking fast is even something that needs to be fixed?
If you want to fix it, is it possible?
And if it is possible, how long will it take and what are the best exercises to use?
Why do some people speak fast?
There is much speculation about this.
Some people say it is a sign of nervousness; some say it comes from having to always compete to be heard; others say it shows that you think fast and are trying to keep up with your thoughts.
Science editor and journalist Theresa Fisher (also a self-diagnosed fast speaker) wrote a great article, shedding some light on how Science Explains Why Some People Talk So Much Faster Than Everybody Else. She talks about the difference between what has come to be named as Exceptionally Rapid Speech (ERS, also known as Tachylalia) and Cluttering (those who speak fast but also add a lot of filler words and hesitation sounds, pause when they shouldn’t and use strange intonation patterns).
Cluttering clearly poses more challenges to effective communication than ERS, but some psycholinguists think that ERS, instead of being a speech disorder could be considered as something of a vocal talent as it goes hand in hand with being able to read fast and having above average verbal memory. Interestingly to me, those leading the research into ERS consider it as a skill to embrace rather than something to fix.
And speaking fast certainly seems to have its place. Another article Speaking Fast and Slow talks about research claiming the benefits of talking fast as well as talking slow. Apparently speaking fast can help when persuading people if those people are inclined to disagree with what you say, whereas speaking slower is better at convincing people who are likely to agree with what you say.
It suggests that the important skill is to be able to switch gears consciously depending on the audience and subject.
Might it be possible for you to embrace your tendency to speak fast as an asset?
So maybe the real challenge is learning how to consciously switch gears between fast and slow?
How to slow down if you speak too fast
The challenge facing anyone who attempts to slow down if they speak too fast, is multitasking.
Of course, speaking prepared material (a speech or presentation) is very different to live, spontaneous speech, but either way, splitting your focus between what you want to say, what you want the other person to think and feel, reading the other person, responding to the environment AND consciously speaking slower is quite a complex thing for your poor old brain.
Which is why simply telling yourself to slow down doesn’t work as a reliable strategy.
And if you get nervous and chuck in a bit of the fight-or-flight response, there’s no way you’ll have the head space to slow down (and that flight-or-fight response will shut down all options other than to survive - I’ll make another post about this soon).
So that leaves developing a practice away from prepared or spontaneous speech that you can repeat in order to build a new habit that you may be able to activate when needed.
Whatever exercises you use, you can be sure that you’ll need to practice them over and over and it’ll take time, patience and generosity.
Jay Miller puts forward his suggestions in Speaking Fast Three Cures for Fast Speech:
Pause after every 6-8 words
This is fine but it seems a bit general. Even if you do pause (however regularly) it still doesn’t stop you speaking those 6-8 words too fast.
He also suggests that you should:
Open your jaw more when speaking
Use the resonance and length of vowels
Sorry Jay but I don't agree with opening your jaw more as a means by which to slow down.
Releasing unwanted tension in your jaw can be very fruitful for so many reasons (see this exercise), but consciously opening your jaw more in conversation (especially if you have jaw tension) can lead to over working the jaw (which is not actually an articulator) and will just make you feel self-conscious and probably a bit silly.
Using the resonance and length of vowels is also fine but first you would have to develop a sense and understanding of which vowels are long and which are short (check out this resource to learn more). Just indulging all vowels will make speech sound unnatural because vowels vary in length. And even if you did have an understanding of which are long and short, surely trying to consciously think in the moment about which vowels are long and short is surely a distraction you don’t want.
Sims Wyeth in How to slow down when you talk too fast relays advice from a speech consultant: take a sentence, divide