The Science Behind Pausing While Speaking

Did you know there is science behind speaking slowly?  Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed the phone calls of telemarketers and found that people who paused frequently during their pitch were more persuasive than callers who spoke uninterrupted.  The researchers say people typically pause about five times a minute. This speech pattern sounds more believable to listeners than when you spit out words without any breaks.

Nighat Dad’s speech above is a good example of the power of pausing.  She gives a passionate, intelligent speech, with a very powerful premise.  But occasionally she rushes, and when she does, her words come out in a nervous jumble, and she has trouble with syntax and grammar.  Her speech is markedly better when she pauses at the end of each thought.

What do you think?  Does pausing work for you?

How to Pace a Tech Talk

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!


Why We Should Change the English Language and Promote the New Version in Video Games

One Saturday afternoon, after managing to convince Vera, my lovely, wild three year old daughter to stop pretending to teach her dolls about dinosaurs, and lay down for her nap, I settled onto the couch to read the New Yorker.  I got really into an article by Elizabeth Kolbert  called “Going Negative” about carbon removal science, and how it might be able to rapidly eliminate greenhouse gasses, and thus, global warming.  According to Kolbert, Carbon removal science owes it’s origins to a physicist named Klaus Lackner, who came up with the concept after a few beers with a fellow physicist, and a long debate over why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore”.

It got me thinking.  What really crazy, big things are happening with the English language?  Sure, there are crazy big concepts about language acquisition, and the philosophy of language, but what about the language itself?  Why is the English language so sacrosanct? Has anyone ever thought seriously about changing it?  Yes, I know, the spoken language changes daily, with many fascinating variants that count as languages in themselves, but that is largely an involuntary, evolutionary process.  But what if we were to deliberately take a variant of English, perhaps standard American English, and change it?  So here’s my big idea: I think we should create a simpler, truncated, more phonetic version of English, and promote this simpler form in cartoons and video games (and by “we” I mean anyone who loves the English language).

Do you know that the English language is one of the world’s least phonetic languages? There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, but nearly forty-four sounds.  NOBODY knows this.  Most native speakers of English are not aware of this, and many non-native speakers of English aren’t aware of it either.  When my daughter goes to preschool, she is taught the written language first, and a simplified, piecemeal variant of the spoken language second.  She is taught about the letter “O”, and the long and short versions of the sound for “O”, but not all the pronunciations that can be associated with the letter “O”.  She will never be taught the “shwa” sound because there is no symbol for that sound.  She will be able to intuit the sound as she is surrounded by the language on a daily basis, but what about a teenager in Lebanon who spends a good deal of time at an internet cafe?  If she is interested, how will she learn these subtleties?  If the connection between the spoken and written language is hazy to teachers of English, how can we assume that non-native speakers of English, with perhaps a high barrier of entry, will understand the connection, and speak English clearly?

They can’t.  In third world countries, and developing nations, the resources for proper training in English are limited, and many teachers skip over the written-spoken language gap and teach a form of English that is a combination of their local dialect and the English language.  But what if we were to shrink the number of spoken sounds in English from forty-four to thirty-four, and work to make the language more phonetic by spelling out English words and phrases phonetically in easily accessible mediums, like video games and cartoons?  There is precedent for this.  Mandarin has over ten thousand characters, so a simplified version was created called “Simplified Chinese” which utilizes much fewer characters.

So which character’s should be dropped, and why video games?  Let’s start with doing away with the “th” sound.  It has been argued that it is going the way of the dinosaur owing to the fact that it is so difficult for non-native speakers of English to pronounce.  Let’s fold it into the “d” sound for our new “Simplified English”. Yes you will need context clues to distinguish whether a non-native speaker of English is talking about a “din” or someone who is “thin” but it seems a small price to pay for a higher degree of global fluency.

And what about this crazy idea of promoting “Simplified English” to gaming companies? Well, to start with the video gaming market was worth close to $100 billion dollars globally in 2016, up 8.4% when compared to 2015. And guess which country dominated that market? China, the world’s fastest developing nation.  Why not persuade gaming companies to create “Simplified English” gaming subtitles and transcripts?  Why not create simple visual intonation patterns at the bottom of the screen and encourage players to speak or sing along with the characters?  Every international student of a certain age knows how to say “hasta la vista, baby”.  Why?  Simple. Because it’s fun to speak outside your language, and to watch movies or play video games, and pretend. Why not mash up the three?

Obviously this is not a fully baked concept, but why wait to put it out there in a world in which misunderstandings build upon themselves?  When I was at a social event not too long ago I met a young man from Iraq who had immigrated to New York City around ten years ago.  His English was flawless, and being a speech coach, I wanted to know how someone from a war torn country with a fractured relationship to the U.S. had come to speak English so well.  “I watched American cartoons”, he said.  Religiously. Every day. Over and over.  A free, immersive, interactive, fun, ubiquitous tutorial.

wat r ur eyedeeyas for a moar fonetik inglish langwij ikspeereeyuhns? #simplifiedenglish

Is it Possible to Speak too Slow while Presenting?

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.