“A good pace is what you would naturally say to one person. If you’re rattling like a machine gun one person is not going to be very interested. There are stories that annoy, upset, amuse, and in some senses I’m hoping that the viewer will also be amused, annoyed, upset or horrified.”
Jon Snow, journalist and presenter
One way to boost gravitas is pace. Another is pausing. Pace must be intertwined with meaning and the needs of the audience. The best pace allows you to connect with the meaning of every word as you speak it at exactly the right pace for your audience to take it in.
Pace is like the three bears’ porridge; you want it just right. Goldilocks found the porridge ‘too hot’ and ‘too cold’. Pace is best when it’s not too fast or too slow. The only way to ascertain just right in pace terms is to be tuned in to what the audience need (that’s why getting content in the muscle matters so much).
Alice in Wonderland refuses to talk to the Cheshire Cat until she can see both his ears. With audiences you need to wait for the eyes. You can see people thinking – their eyes move as they process. If the content is new to the audience you need to start where they are and take each idea slowly. Give them time to take in the idea before you move on. If they are old hands you can probably afford to pick up the pace, but you need to notice if their eyes are bright and focused or dull and confused. Shining eyes tell you the pace is right. Dull eyes tell you to adjust. If in doubt ask a question. You’ll soon find out what they need.
Too fast means running ahead of yourself, blurting out sentences and tripping over words whether out of excitement or anxiety. Too fast is usually risky. I admit that sometimes it can communicate passion if used in short bursts with control but usually it confuses people. They can’t keep up with you or it worries them. They see and hear you rushing and worry that you might be feeling nervous or trying to hide something.
You know when the pace is too fast because you are skipping ahead of the ideas, usually out of nerves. You see the audience’s eyes go dead because they can’t keep up. If you realise you’re rushing take a moment. Breathe. Ask a question. Then consciously put the brakes on. Go one thought at a time, like a train stopping at each station. Take a look at the scenery rather than rushing ahead like the brakes don’t work.
Too slow worries the audience just as much but for different reasons. They worry that perhaps you aren’t thinking fast enough. They get anxious for you – is your slowness because you are stressed or tired and becoming distracted? Or maybe you needed more time to get the content in the muscle, so you’re working hard to remember what to say next?
You know you’re too slow because you get interruptions, people try to finish your sentence or they look bored. You might see frustration in their faces or them looking at their phone. Or – the signs that every performer dreads – they fidget or cough. Coughs are a bad sign. When you notice these dreaded signs pick up the pace pronto. Keep the energy up and match the pace to the thinking.
Interestingly in the University of Michigan research, the sweet spot for pace when it came to influencing an audience was a rate of about 3.5 words per second. It might be a good experiment to time your words per minute but I wouldn’t obsess about it. The shining eyes of an audience is a better marker.
Listen to pace in the world. Who compels you because their pace is just right? Who frustrates or confuses you because they are too fast? Who annoys or bores you because they are too slow? Learn what to do or, equally powerfully, what not to do from these examples and become a connoisseur of pace.