How fast do I speak?

When I am making presentations about public speaking or delivering a podcast (yes, that really is me in the picture above), I often talk about the perceptions formed based on the rate of speech of the presenter. Inevitably someone in the audience asks me,

“Lisa, how fast do YOU speak?”

If you have attended one of my Smart Talk keynotes or workshops, spoken with me on the phone you , or listened to one of my podcasts, you would know that my natural rate of speech is quite fast. When making presentations I speak at approximately 145-160 words per minute (wpm), while an average American English speaker engaged in a friendly conversation speaks at a rate of approximately 110–150 wpm. (Interestingly, publishers recommend books on tape to be voiced at 150-160 wpm, auctioneers are generally 250-400 wpm while the average reading rate is about 200-300 wpm).

However, as you may know, people speak at different rates at different times. Natural speech includes bursts of more rapid speech and in addition, we are all capable of speaking faster and slower when we want. Of course, there are also variations in speed associated with the situation in which the speech is being produced.

We speak more rapidly if we are in a hurry, or saying something urgent, or trying not to be interrupted in a conversation. For many people, nervousness or excitement will also increase the rate of speech. Conversely, we tend to speak more slowly when we are tired or bored. I know for me, I tend to talk more slowly and with more non-words (um, ah, pauses, etc.) when making impromptu presentations and while practicing delivery of new presentation materials. Clearly the emotional state of the speaker greatly influences the rate of speaking.

Finally, I think there is also a cultural and personal element. In some places such as New York City, people tend to naturally talk faster, while in other locales people talk much slower. Culturally, if English isn’t the speakers first language, that can also slow down the rate of speech. In addition, some people are naturally fast talkers, while others habitually speak slowly. I was a fast talker even as a child. My mother was constantly telling me to slow down and breathe!

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How do you calculate how fast you speak?

We are used to measuring the speed at which someone can type, write or take shorthand dictation in terms of how many words per minute are taken down. Some adjustment usually has to be made to penalize someone for going so rapidly that they make mistakes. In measuring speech, we can do the same thing – we can give someone a speaking task such as describing what their research is or what they did on their last vacation – and count how many words they speak in a given time period.

So, are your ready to calculate your speech rate? You have two options. The first option is a more accurate measure of your speech rate, but requires you to speak extemporaneously about a topic for one minute. While the alternative method, isn’t quite as accurate, but does give you a general idea of your speech rate.

Option One: Record, Talk and Count

Take out your tape recorder. Think of a topic you have a genuine interest in…your family, your research, and your favorite hobby. Once you are ready, begin speaking and begin recording yourself. Be sure to speak for at least one minute on the topic. Then using the rewind function, play the tape back several times to count the number of words you uttered in one minute. It is even better if you extemporaneously present and record one minute of your most recent presentation. This way, your score will be a more accurate measure of your “presentation” speech rate.

[August 2013 Update:  I originally wrote this article in the early 90's before the internet! Yes, really! I posted it here to this website -- I think-- in 2008 or so. In any case, I'm just now re-reading this section and I realize that no one actually uses tape recorders anymore! The best way to do this would be simply to use a mobile device that will convert your speech to text. Just talk for one minute and capture the text. Then cut and paste the text into a Word document and use the tool to count the words!]

Option Two: Read and Count

For those of you that would prefer not to record yourself, here is another way to measure your speech rate. Read the following “test” paragraph aloud. Try to pace yourself as if you are presenting or talking at your “normal” rate. This method isn’t as accurate but it is easier to count.

Start “presenting” the paragraph below. See how far you get after a minute has gone by. Count the number of words you were able to express in one minute. This is your presentation speech rate.

Start your timing, then stop, after one minute.

This begins my test of my presentation speech rate. Using this method, I will measure my speech rate by reading the following sentences as if I am actually speaking in my normal manner.

In our lab, we are determining what is required to turn designed proteins into active enzymes. Specifically, I am working with Bill Smith to add the functions of dinuclear enzymes to our designs. Our work has the potential to create small enzymes capable of replacing large natural ones that are difficult to express and purify.

We found that opening the active site to substrate required using smaller side chains that resulted in destabilization of the protein structure.

(Word count 110)

A detailed analysis suggested that we could stabilize the new enzyme structure by reengineering the turn in our protein.

(Word count 129)

We demonstrated that the new enzyme adopts the desired conformation and can perform several reactions naturally catalyzed by much larger proteins.

(Word count 150)

This work demonstrates that we can design new active sites, and is the first step to the design of active sites capable of novel chemistry.

(Word count 175)

This is a test. This is only a test of my speech rate.

~end~ (Word count 183)

Does speaking quickly or slowly matter?

Yes! It does. Research has shown that speaking rate influences perceptions. In fact, a positive linear relationship has repeatedly been found between speech rate and perceived competence. In fact several studies found that faster rates of speech are associated with perceptions of competence, extraversion, and social attractiveness. In other similar studies, listeners rated competence and social attractiveness higher for those speakers whose perceived and actual speaking rates were similar to their own than to those whose rates they believed to be different from their own.

Obviously, other factors also influence perceptions of competence, extraversion and social attractiveness. What is important to remember is that your rate of speech does have an impact on the perceptions of your audience.

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So what is your rate of speech? Let us know in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, you should also read:

What Makes Your Nervous?

How to Introduce Yourself

How to Expand Your Business through Public Speaking

How to Get Rid of Ums and Ahs

 

There are 23 comments .

Terry Gault

Lisa,

Thanks for the post.

Controlling your speech rate is a definitely a good thing to keep track of.

Nonetheless, I want to turn this post on its head: I feel that presenters often try to rush through their material as quickly as possible and in doing so alienate their audience.

Silence is powerful in presentations!

Silence is a common occurrence in genuine dialogue. One of our strongest allies in being mentally present is to hold our silence longer than is comfortable.

Our natural discomfort with silence sometimes causes us to interrupt a silence in the conversation too soon. Frequently, before someone embraces a new perspective we are urging, they will go silent. They are doing the deep thinking required before they open to new perspectives. To interrupt this important exploration undercuts our ability to influence.

I always suggest:

1. Practice holding silence longer. Allow your “inner-observer” to
monitor your nervousness, “Shouldn’t I be saying something?”
2. Develop deeper silences within yourself so that you can hear
through the noise to find the signal of what others really mean.
3. See the silence of your conversation not as dead silence, not as paralyzed silence, but as silence teeming with possibility.

Thanks again

Reply »
Lisa B. Marshall

Rushing is definitely NOT what this post is endorsing! It was just to talk about the perceptions of listeners. And I agree that pauses or silences are an important part of our speech. I like to say, just like in music, the pauses are an integral part of the beauty. A pause BEFORE an important point draws attention to the next words spoken, while a pause AFTER a point, allows for “digestion” of the thought. Pauses are also VERY IMPORTANT when delivering humor–many jokes simply aren’t funny if you don’t pause in the right spot.

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farmer*swife —

I have to say that everyone knows how to control speech when making a point. But, there are some (like myself) for whom the words come out of the mouth as quickly as the mind can think it — though, actually the mind thinks way quicker than the mouth can form and sound the words.

It can be frustrating and difficult when one’s mind runs “a mile a minute” but you have to control the speech for others to digest it.

Think of it from the other side. It is hard for some of us to deal with. And, when trying to slow the speech the mind is so far ahead that the mouth actually looses it’s place and some thoughts are left unfinished.

It’s not a matter of how quickly one wants to expel a thought from one’s mouth, but often a matter of the speed of the mind that is cultivating the thought.

This was enlightening. I enjoyed the little speech (wpm) test.

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Michael —

The test material though is quite technical and a high syllable count. If you read that at 180 wpm, it would sound very rushed, in fact it sounds rushed even at 150, whereas if you were talking to your friend about sport or relationships, 150 might seem snail pace.

Shorthand systems have always struggled to reach those verbatim speeds of 160 or more, but there were thousands of court reporters that used to record by hand the utterings of even the fastest of orators. Gregg Shorthand has records of up to 280wpm although the average person would get around half that speed after some years of study.

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Sokie —

I did your “record one minute of speech” and counted the words (subject: My Pets) and I clocked in 359 words. I left out the uhs and ums, which were many. But I don’t think I sound like an auctioneer. Am I supposed to leave out the prepositional words?

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Valeriemelton —

I have been a fast talker as well as a chatterbox since I can remember. I’ve been asked not to talk quite so fast, which I oblige, and slow down. However, in my defense I speak clearly and concisely, geting my point across well. I also have an excellent memory, remembering trite facts and details said in passing about people I hardly know. People are amazed what I remember; parents name’s of coworkers twelve years ago, names of pets, favorite colors, astrological signs. Every classmate’s name in my kindergarten class photo (1965). I’ve heard that fast talkers have a high memory capacity. What’s the connection?

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Fran Capo —

Hi, My name is Fran Capo. I am the Guinness Book of World Records Fastest Talking Female clocked at 603.32 words in 54.2 seconds. About 11 wpm. I also do motivational speaking and am a stand up comic…needless to say I get a lot of material in, in a short time, but it is understandable and filled with quick punchlines. You can see more at http://www.francapo.com. I enjoyed the information on your site. 

Reply »
Casey —

Love this info! Do you have a source for the word per minute statistics for average words spoken per minute? I would love to use this info in a project I’m doing.

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Bonu Jain

 hi sister-in-low. i am not speaking well English.So,please help me and how talk in english.

Reply »
Bonu Jain

Hi. Plse help me.how to speak well in english 

Reply »
Svetlana Khemleva —

WOW. I didn’t think of myself as a fast talker but I tried the experiment and – oh gosh – reached the end before a minute passed. I should really slow down. Thanks, Lisa!

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Margaret Mary Myers —

My (college-age) son walked in while I was doing the test…and he says I was reading it slowly (for me), even though I spoke at 180 wpm.  Like you, I talked fast from childhood.  Then I lived in Los Angeles, where I may have speeded it up a notch. People have often asked me to slow down.  Ha, I just saw that this was posted four years ago.  Well, I’m slow at some things, I guess.  :)  

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Gerald Burke —

In my natural speaking voice I finished the test in 45 seconds. As an added detail I am a Los Angeles native.

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Shalyn_88 —

I tried reading it as fast as I could and went over the typed words for the test so I had to count them out I also stumbled many times because of the long words I don’t regularly use like conformation and distabalization but I got 212 wpm I think I did less than I could have though if you have me a book where it had grade 3 level wording I think I would have been faster

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Syarah —

hye..I am doing a research about speaking skills. If possible, could you give me some information about how to see the improvement of students fluency, how i can assess their rate of speech and their silent pauses?thanks b4:)

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mahboobeh —

hello
I’m a MA student in English teaching,and i’m working on my thesis about speech rate ,so I’m glad you send me a native Amerian English audio which include both 1.high speech rate and 2.normal speech rate with some pauses.
Thanks in advance

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Deron L. Caudle —

Hi Lisa. I took the “reading test’ on this page and spoke at just over 150 wpm. My reading rate is faster (I’ve always been a good reader), but my speech has stumbled some in recent years. I work in radio, so I do a lot of reading “on air” and have been told at least once that I need to speed up (and add some “life” to how I sound when I’m talking (reading).

Reply »
    Lisa B. Marshall —

    Hi Deron,

    Yes, the speed at which you speak impacts perceptions of others. Since I wrote that post (years ago), there is much more research on rate of speech. I keep meaning to write an update. Perhaps you’ve inspired me! :)

    Reply »

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