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personal effectiveness
9 Minute read

Words per minute: how to speak slower when public speaking

Posted by - 100th Monkey Team, Category: Presentation Skills Training

The speed at which we speak has a huge bearing on confidently we come across in our spoken communications, and how well our words are heard, understood, and acted upon.

At the 100th Monkey we have pioneered the use of data to help improve your impact and clarity, firstly by measuring the speed at which you speak.

"Words per minute = (number of words spoken divided by seconds to speak them) x60"

What is the sweet spot for public speaking?

Studying the common traits of the great orators is helpful for anyone wishing to improve as a speaker. Not because we are aiming to transform you into Martin Luther-King in order to deliver your next internal team meeting update. But because the first thing you notice is that key messages land much better with audiences when communicators use a very deliberate, slower pace of delivery.

The average person speaks at 180-190 words per minute (wpm) in everyday conversation. But in presentations, fuelled by a little (or a lot) of nervous energy, the dial often flies past 200wpm. You appear less confident, keen to “just get it over with” or even lacking care and conviction in what you are saying. And the biggest problem is, you could have the best scripted words, and fantastic slides which you have slaved over. But if you deliver at 200+wpm there’s every chance your audience will not have time to hear what you have to say, let alone take it in. At best your messages are diluted, at worst, lost entirely.

“Aim for a bracket of around 120-170 wpm. The difference in impact on the audience - in terms of engagement and recall - is remarkable.
Richard Edwards, Founder 100th Monkey

Learning from great speakers

As our image below shows, when Barack Obama wants to land something, he takes it down to 112 wpm. Martin Luther King talked at 62 wpm during the opening of his ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963. Steve Jobs, unveiling the iPhone in 2007, delivered the big bang moments at between 54 to 85 wpm. Sir David Attenborough purrs at 110-120 wpm.

In other words, we need to slow down. But that’s not all.

‘One-paced’ slow is as bad as one-paced fast. VARIETY is what you come to realise all the greats use in their voices to keep the audience engaged, and to sound human, not forced. So try finding key words to land by slowing right down, but also identify the moments where you can up the rate. Aim for a bracket of around 120-170 wpm. The difference in impact on the audience – in terms of engagement and recall – is remarkable.

How we measure your WPM

The trick we use to bring this home in our sessions is very simple. We surreptitiously put a stopwatch on you during a presentation (albeit we’ve revealed that now, haven’t we…). Then we can tell you how you measure up to the greats.

The winner in five years of testing (meaning the slowest speaker) clocked 82 wpm. The fastest (meaning the loser) pushed 350 wpm, 6 words a second. Even when we asked him to recall what he’d said, he could not. So what chance his audience!?

That individual was shocked at the numbers and made immediate and really tangible changes, to fantastic effect. And we have had so many more instances of attendees who told us they had spent their whole career being told to slow down without being able to crack it. Time and again we have found providing the data has really helped embed the change in behaviour.

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