Talks I Love: Speaking Rate

This is part of the Talks I Love series.

This month’s “Talks I Love” post focuses on speaking rate. For me, this is one of the most challenging aspects of good delivery. My normal speaking rate is faster than average, and when I get nervous that rate increases even more. Learning to slow down, pause, and let things sink in is one of my current speaking goals. Six Minutes has an article analyzing the speaking rate in several TED talks. It examines the speaking rate of several popular TED talks. If the metrics and numbers are interesting to you, I recommend checking it out. Below are two speakers with different styles who both do a great job varying their speaking rate to engage the audience.

Nickolas Means: How To Crash An Airplane

Whenever I see that Nickolas is speaking at an event, I make sure I don’t miss his talk. His topics are different, but he brings things back to lessons I can use immediately at work. More than the content though I find his delivery to be incredibly engaging. His speaking makes great use of both a slower pace than many and also changing the pace to emphasize his points. A great example is early on he says “nice wide cabin” at a slower rate. Slowing down emphasizes wide even more. When Nickolas is talking about the emergency calls to Air Traffic Control, he speeds up a bit which helps indicate urgency. I also like how he adds pauses when he is illustrating things with his model plane. That gives the audience a second to really take in what he’s showing.

The model plane is one of the other things I enjoy about this talk. While he shows graphs and photos the fact that he has a model DC-10 in the appropriate United Airlines livery makes things much more relatable. The recordings he plays of the Air Traffic Control exchanges also make the entire story more real. He could easily have read the transcript, but by including the recordings, he makes the story he’s telling more engaging.

This talk was given at a technical conference. On the surface, it seems like it doesn’t have much to offer an audience of programmers. During the last ten minutes, Nickolas shows how the lessons learned from the crash of United 232 apply to software. He reminds us to listen to the contributions of all members, especially in emergencies, and to accept offers of help instead of trying to be a hero. All of these are valuable lessons for folks in the software industry.

Jonan Scheffler: Building HAL: Running Ruby with Your Voice

Jonan talks a bit faster than Nickolas, and his general style is more goofy. Yet speaking rate and pausing are still important to his delivery. When he tells jokes, he pauses to let people laugh. When he is explaining the basics of utterances and phonemes, he slows down his pace to make it easier for the audience to hear the differences between the various monophones. Often he emphasizes key points, like frequency, by slowing down a bit as well.

Jonan does a lot of talks with live demos. Having the courage to go up on stage knowing that there’s a good chance your demo will go sideways for reasons out of your control takes guts. But because he often has funny demos and tells jokes his talks are popular. One of the things I’m trying to copy from Jonan is how effectively he uses his hands. When he talks about trees, he makes a pyramid shape with his hands. When he refers to himself, he points to himself. Using my hands effectively has been one of my big challenges and when I notice someone who does it well I study it carefully.