For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. As I slow down my own speaking career, I’ve decided to put some of that mentoring advice into Internet form. In this installment, we talk about speaking—and by that, I mean pacing.
It is a common theme with most new speakers that they need to slow down when they speak. And by common, I mean pretty much every new speaker (and even a few experienced ones) falls victim to this. So one of the things that I tell new speakers to do is to put a Post-It somewhere on their laptop that reads, “Slow Down and Drink”.
Part of the reason a speaker goes faster during a talk is because they are nervous, to be sure. You’re not going to get past that until you get a little bit of experience and practice under your belt. While I wish there was a magical recipe for making the nervousness and anxiety go away, alas, I know of no such thing. And frankly I’m not sure I would take it even if I could; nervousness, anxiety, whatever you want to call it, is usually the dark corners of your mind trying to wind you up, and the reason those dark corners can do that is because you’re concerned about doing a good job. If you didn’t care about the quality of your presentation, you really wouldn’t be nervous, because seriously, who cares? Nail it, blow it, whatever. That nervousness is A Good Thing, so don’t be so quick to toss it away.
(True story: Thirty years ago, I was attending a youth soccer/futbol referee camp hosted by the legendary referee Ken Aston. This is the man who invented the red and yellow cards, people—he was the gold standard of international soccer/futbol refereeing as you can get. During the closing ceremonies of the camp, one of the other campers asked him about his career and why he retired. He paused, then said, “You know, during my last World Cup, one of the other gents asked that same thing.” He sort of went into himself for a second to think, and then he said: “Picture this: We are standing in the tunnel leading out to the World Cup Final. Thousands of people are screaming, singing, chanting. The teams are preparing to take the field. We five are standing in the tunnel, looking out onto the pitch, having our briefing before we begin, and that question comes up. ‘How can you walk away from this?’ was sort of the implication. I said, ‘Gentlemen, extend one of your hands and hold it flat to the ground.’ They did so, and all four of them were visibly shaking. I put my own hand out and it was steady as a rock—no nervous shaking whatsoever. I looked at them and said, ‘That’s how I know.’“)
Another reason speakers tend to speed up, however, is because they labor under the misguided notion that they need to put as much material into the attendees’ brains as possible—the attendees will be so bored if I don’t, and every second I’m not piling new stuff into their heads is a second they’re going to think I’m wasting their time, and—
Bzzzzt. Nope. Wrong. Attendees, like you, are human. They need time to process the information you have told them. As a matter of fact, in some cases, they may even need time to just translate your words if your language is not their native tongue before they can even begin to parse the meaning. Particularly for heavily conceptual talks, or new ideas that the audience hasn’t seen before, it will take them some degree of time before they can process it.
Don’t believe me? Go to a standup show sometime. Watch the audience. Particularly if the comedian is a dry-sense-of-humor kind of performer, it will take the audience a second or two just to get the fact that he cracked a joke, then a second or two to get the joke, and then they start laughing. And most comedians are not talking about conceptually heavy material—they’re just trying to make you laugh.
Listening takes time.
This is why you need to slow down.
Yes, drink. As in, bring a glass or bottle of water up with you onto the stage (if the conference doesn’t already provide one), and periodically take a swig. Yes, it will create a pause in your presentation. It will create dead air in which you are not talking. It will—
It will create a necessary moment where the audience can stop listening to you, ingest your words, and start processing them.
Think of it as chewing and swallowing your material while you swig and swallow the water, if that analogy works for you.
(Oh, and yes, I’ve known some speakers who will bring something a bit stronger than water with them up onto stage; I certainly don’t recommend it for your first presentation, but if you’re giving a keynote on stage and you want to try and exude a Ron White kind of persona, go for it.)
Best part is, the water will also help with dry mouth and when the speaking sucks all the moisture out of your throat and you start coughing. Two birds with one stone.