A good percentage of my client’s presentations deal with technology and science. There are numerous hurdles to overcome when presenting technology; how to make data interesting, how to use metaphor to make complex concepts digestible, how to use wit and humor to engage the audience, etc. But the most difficult aspect of talking science for many presenters is the manner in which they speak.
I think Pranav Mistry gives a good speech here despite having imperfect English. There are moments when his excitement gets the best of him, and he talks too quickly, but the bulk of his presentation is done at a measured pace. When he takes the time to breathe in between thoughts, and slow down, he is much more clear. These “micro-pauses” allow his brain to process what his articulators (lips, tongue, lower jaw, and soft palate) are doing and gives him a moment to think about language. Most of Mr. Mistry’s pronunciation mistakes (some w-v confusion, syllable stress mistakes, problems with phrasing) occur when he is speaking quickly. His brain doesn’t have time to think about pacing, articulation and the like.
You can imagine the left frontal lobe to be a little like a busy highway. The more congested the neural pathways are that connect the brain together, the less likely they are to transmit information. If you speak fast, you clog your frontal lobe with information, and it cannot do what it does best, produce language. So take your time!
It’s hard to make a great speech about grain, but Pierre Thiam has managed to do so in this wonderful TED talk. He starts with a simple opener: “I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal”. By signaling that this will be a “personal creation” story at the start, he has us hooked. Storytelling is the lifeblood of any good speech, and personal storytelling is king.
As he reveals his story, he eloquently weaves in his argument for a solution to desertification in Africa. His speech overflows with rigorous research and startling stats about migration patterns, immigration, and food sustenance in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we never really lose the sense that this is a personal journey. It’s this combination of careful research, intellectual rigor and personal revelation that makes this simple topic dynamic.
I’d like to call attention to Mr. Thiam’s articulation. Clearly, English is not his native language, but he is able to get his points across (despite some mispronunciations) for a few simple reasons. First, he is taking a clear and deliberate pause at the end of each phrase. Second, he highlights one focus word per thought group with his intonation, and finally, he uses proper intonation on “road sign” words that signal a change in thought like “however”, “then again” and “although”. Mr. Thiam’s articulation is clear because he prioritizes proper rhythm, stress, and intonation.
One of the biggest concerns of my executive presentation training clients in New York City is pacing. “How fast should I speak” is a question I get a lot. I tend to think you cannot speak too slow while presenting. Adrenaline is a powerful substance, and it tends to take over a speech. Without awareness, it’s all too easy to rush. But there are those that think speaking too slow is a legitimate problem while presenting. Let’s compare two TED talks, and analyze their rate of speech, starting with Laura Galante’s speech on Russian hacking:
I think Laura’s pacing is good. She takes a clear pause at the end of each thought, and highlights important words with her intonation. By taking her time, she makes complex material clear.
Now let’s check out Bendetta Berti’s TED talk from 2016:
Interesting comparison on a number of fronts. I would say she is speaking much too fast, especially toward the middle of the speech. Occasionally, she will take a break at the end of each thought group to allow her thoughts to land, but in general, she is rushing through ideas and concepts. The problem is made worse by the fact that she is mispronouncing some important words, and dropping the “th” sound entirely.
I did my best to find an example of a TED-talker who was speaking too slowly. I couldn’t find one. So I stand by my original premise; you cannot speak too slow while presenting. What do you think? Comment below or tweet me your thoughts.