Pacing Yourself on the Podium

By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy

Here’s an idea to take more command over your public speaking skills. Reading time: 5:34

          Speak very s-l-o-w-l-y and people will listen more attentively to you, observes actor Kirk Douglas who suffered a stroke in his 80s that forced his slower paced speech.

Kirk Douglas starred in the movie Spartacus

Kirk Douglas starred in the 1960 movie Spartacus

          The most effective leaders know that pacing intensifies listening in much the same way classical music paces progressively to a crescendo. Martin Luther King Jr. brilliantly paced his “I Have a Dream” speech. He started at 90 words a minute (well below conversational pace of 140 words a minute). Then he concluded at a passionate 150 words per minute.

        Radio commentator Walter Winchell commanded attention with his staccato paced news delivery, gushing at twice the normal rate of speech —more than 237 words a minute—often without a breath for 20 seconds.

       The staccato voice of a passionate speaker can then be heard even faster, almost as fast as the violinist who plays 2,528 consecutive sixteenth notes for 158 measures in Ravel’s Sonata for violin.

       Whew! Meanwhile radio commentator Paul Harvey was famous for his ever-changing syncopated delivery peppered with pregnant pauses and abrupt topic changes that attracted millions of listeners for more than 50 years on ABC Radio.

     Silence Can Be Deafening

      Paul Harvey leveraged the power of the pregnant pause: “GOOD…..DAY.” The silent interval can be deafening.

      The pause heightens interest in the words to follow. With the pregnant pause, you can surprise your audience much like the long pause in composer Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 94. In the 16th measure of the second movement, there is only one sound, a single loud chord that SURPRISES the audience and gives it its namesake, The Surprise Symphony.

         Pull a Haydn. Surprise your audience. With the pacing of your voice. From staccato. To silence. To surprise.  That’s what the most effective leaders do from the podium.

           Let’s study the deliberate pacing of three famous speakers: Martin Luther King Jr., President John Kennedy and President Barack Obama.

“I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King speaks from the Lincoln Monument  mall in Washington DC

Martin Luther King speaks from the Lincoln Monument mall in Washington DC

            On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King simmered his ideas in a crockpot. He spoke for less than 90 words per minute for seven of his 16 minutes of his speech. In fact, the first two minutes of his speech he averaged only 80 words per minute, well below the 125 words per minute average pace. In fact, Dr. King averaged 100 words per minute over the 16 minutes.

            Slow and deliberate pacing, especially at the beginning of a speech, makes the periodic bursts of passionate speech seem even more poignant, more intense, more memorable.

           But Dr. King accelerated his pacing from 99 words in the 13th minute to 119 and 157 words in each of the next two minutes when he began his famous reiteration:

         “Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee…..”

       Pacing is powerfully persuasive.

“So let us begin anew”

President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural speech

President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural speech

              On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy began his inaugural address with slow and deliberate pace. He averaged 90 words a minute for the first three minutes. He accelerated his pace to 116 words per minute at the eight-minute mark,  sparking his call to action with a greater sense of urgency in the following passage:

            “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides
that civility is not a sign of weakness,
and sincerity is always subject to proof.

Let us never negotiate out of fear.
But let us never fear to negotiate. 

Let both sides explore what problems unite us
instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. 

Let both sides, for the first time,
formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection
and control of arms—

and bring the absolute power to destroy
other nations under the absolute control of all nations.”

            It is instructive to note that Kennedy slowed his pace down from 99 words per minute to 76 words per minute just before unleashing his 116-word per minute pacing  in “So let us begin a new….” To put that accelerated pace in more perspective, consider that Kennedy averaged 97 words per minute throughout his 14 minute inaugural. Pacing is powerfully persuasive.

“Yes we can”

           On February 12, 2008, Barack Obama’s speech after winning the Virginia Primary demonstrated the same crock pot simmering of ideas in the opening two minutes when he averaged 94 words per minute. (Waiting for the applause to subside accounted for less than 10 seconds in these first 120 seconds.) In the eighth minute of his speech he slowed in down even more: he spoke for 56 words per minute. Obama averaged 106 words per minute over the first 12 minutes of the speech.

        But then in the second half of his speech he averaged 136 words per minute, including gusts of 161 words per minute at the 18 minute mark and 161 words per minute in the last minute. The slower opening made his verbal eruption at the conclusion that much more exhilarating.  Pacing is powerfully persuasive.

         So the next time you take command of a podium, remember to pace yourself. More powerfully. And more persuasively.

Today’s ImproveMINT

Pace your speech to keep your leadership thinking in mint condition.

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