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 it up into short phrases with forward slashes. Then whisper it slowly, enunciating each word clearly, taking a breath at each forward slash with your hand on your belly. Then go back and say it at a conversational pace, still breathing and enunciating as above.
I tried this myself and think it has a place in your practice. Personally, I call it ‘chunking’. It’s less prescriptive than Miller’s ‘6-8 words’ suggestion, and also invites you to begin to appreciate the physical experience of articulating all the sounds in words (not just the vowels). And it’s true that enjoying the act of articulating the sounds in words is something great communicators seem to do and those that speak fast may not be appreciating. I've got my own version of this with a couple of additions in my FREE How To Slow Down If You Speak Too Fast Guide which you can download at the bottom.
Bruna Martinuzzi in Slow Down: Why Speaking Too Fast Can Hurt Your Message offers some more complex advice about using pauses:
a short pause at the comma
a medium pause at the end of a sentence
a longer pause when concluding a point
Whilst it’s a bit prescriptive it suggests that there is a more nuanced relationship between what you are saying and the function of the pause - something a fast speaker may not be noticing. However, it still doesn’t stop you speaking the words between the pauses quickly, but maybe you could take Martinuzzi’s advice and apply it to Wyeth’s ‘chunking’ exercise above?
Martinuzzi’s article goes further, suggesting that eye contact is vital to help you speak slower, because it helps you to connect and read the audience and put the breaks on.
Although it’s pretty common sense I couldn’t agree more (just don’t stare them down: eye contact should be used appropriately and sensitively). However, in and of itself it doesn’t help you to slow down unless you know how. But using the information you get from your listener/s (facial expression and body language) can educate you as to whether they are with you, ahead of you, or behind you.
The only caveat is that this information may not always be reliable and the way we interpret it is often through our own psychological perspective (which tends to be negative if we view our ability as a speaker as being poor). For example, consider that your listener may not be holding eye contact or their body may be fidgety simply because they feel self-conscious or preoccupied (perhaps they just need the toilet, or there is something difficult going on in their lives) and your interpretation is that they are being impolite or disinterested and think you’re stupid. These thoughts (if unchecked) spiral and we leave the conversation thinking we’ve failed and our confidence is dented. I have to say, in my own experience and through the stories my clients tell me about their experiences, it seems that shifting one’s psychological perspective is perhaps the most effective root at changing one’s speaking habits. I’ll come back to this in a second.
So value eye contact, but know that the information you get from the listener, if it is to be useful, needs to be filtered generously and sensitively and based on hard facts rather than assumptions.
Martinuzzi’s last two points are firstly that repetition is a powerful tool to drive home a particular point or idea, especially if you speak fast and the listener doesn’t have time to digest your point the first time. And secondly, the claim that fear of running out of time drives some people to speaking fast and suggests using a pacing and timing app.
I can see then potential benefits of using a pacing or timing app if I’m speaking prepared material (although if I’m behind knowing how to calmly and logically catch up is a skill in and of itself) but I can’t see the use in live, spontaneous speech, which is the instance in which I think most people need help.
And last of all, Sarah Lloyd-Hughes in What to do when you talk too fast echoes the need for both a fast and slow pace of speech suggesting that to speak a one pace throughout a conversation or presentation or speech can be monotonous.
She also backs up the importance of eye contact, and whilst not exclusively related to slowing down she goes a bit further, suggesting that when you look like you’re losing your audience, there are some ‘steps’ you can take to recapture them:
sip some water
check your notes
change a slide or flip chart sheet without speaking
ask a question
Her other suggestion is that being confident in your posture is vital in telling the audience that you’re confident and also will help you breathe. Both of which are true. But speaking fast isn’t always an indication of nervousness and so you may already stand tall and be breathing deeply, but continue to speak fast.
My exercises for how to slow down if you speak too fast...
I’m not going to repeat any of the exercises mentioned above (some of which are worth incorporating into your practice), but here are some that I use and that I offer my clients, that seem to have worked for my clients (get my FREE How To Slow Down If You Speak Too Fast Guide PDF at the bottom):
1. The ‘hum’ exercise
STEP 1. Take some writing (anything) and speak it aloud, humming (‘mmm’) between every word. Take your time and breathe whenever necessary.
STEP 2. As you do this, articulate every consonant sound with an interest in their particular quality. For example, P, B, T, D, K and G are all very sudden, hard sounds; whereas S, Z, F, V, TH, SH and ZH are all long, softer sounds.
STEP 3. This time when you speak it aloud, continue to articulate each consonant with the same awareness but don’t hum. Instead, leave the space where the hum would have been (an actual pause). Take your time.
STEP 4. Speak it again, but reduce the length of the time between each word by half - still articulating each consonant with the same awareness.
STEP 5. Now speak it without the pause between each word, but I wonder if you can keep the awareness of each consonant sound and keep some sense of the boundary between each word? Could the words AND the space between them be as important as one another?
The goal? To feel like you are giving each word the time it needs for each sound in the word to be articulated: to feel that whilst words should link together smoothly, each word has a beginning and an end of which you notice.
2. Ask yourself ‘is it a fact?’
The truth is that for some people, speaking fast may be an innate hardwiring. But it may also be true that for others it’s developed out of an unhelpful experience. Now, I’m no psychologist, and cannot begin to imagine the complexity of unpicking our thoughts and behaviours, but if the latter is true for you (and it certainly was for me), I wonder if it is at all possible to interrupt some of your habitual thinking?
Personally, something I’ve noticed is that stress causes me to speak fast. When I let speculative thoughts, based on habitual negative thinking, get out of control, I can’t control my pace of speaking.
One time, when relaying my beliefs about how difficult it felt to speak well, a very wise person said ‘how do you know that’s true?’ and I said ‘well, because people tend to look really bored’ and they said, ‘who looked bored?’. And I really struggled to think of someone immediately, but then remembered one recent conversation, named the person and described their fidgetiness when I spoke to them, and the wise person said ‘how do you know whether that person was fidgety because you were boring?’ In other words, they were asking, ‘is that a fact?’.
So, when I feel stressed because I am faced with someone who looks disinterested or is challenging me and I’m assessing how well I’m speaking, I ask myself if the thoughts I’m having about my success or failure are facts or not. If I don’t know, then that’s still useful information. It’s what I do with it that is important. At times I’ve named it, asking the listener ‘you seem unsettled, is everything okay?’ and it’s helped no end. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting it’s easy or that it is always possible, and to begin with it took time to interrupt my habitual thinking with this question, but with time and practice I became more and more able and less and less at the mercy of damning self-appraisal based on assumptions. And this is part of what then enabled me to keep control of my pace of speech.
The goal? To be able to notice unhelpful thoughts and ditch them.
3. Small Slices Of Cake Please
Imagine a whole chocolate gateau. If asked, ‘how big a slice would you like?’ you make a judgement based on a whole number of factors, not least of all your appetite. If you get more than you can eat, you feel overwhelmed, but if you get less, of course you’ll want more.
It’s the same thing in conversation, and I’m not just talking about how much information or detail you give but whether you are serving digestible portions of information (you might find you can eat more cake if you’re given several small slices in contrast to one great slab).
And if you speak too fast, it’s likely that you’re always serving great big slabs of content.
In linguistics there is the study of what’s known as time units and tonic syllables (I won’t bore you with the facts but you can learn more here). The reason I mention this, is because it’s about delivering spoken content in bite sized slices. Each slice has an emphasised word and is divided by pauses. It’s the way we help the listener to take away the core message and not force them to figure out for themselves what is important and what is not.
So here’s the exercise:
Take some writing / and underline words / that you think are important. / If you are unsure /, read aloud, / and underline words that you naturally emphasise. / Then, / create little sections, / each containing one underlined word, / by drawing forward slashes. / Read aloud, / emphasising the underlined words / and pausing / appropriately / at each forward slash. / Try practicing / with this paragraph. /
The goal? To practice giving your listener the key bits of information in digestible chunks. This won’t necessarily help you to slow down, but this skill is perhaps even more vital than telling yourself to slow down. If you're thinking 'great, but I really need some personal help, learn more about my coaching CLICK HERE.