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How many words to say? The perennial challenge in public speaking

December 29, 2012

Many speakers can’t work out how many words they can say in the time they’ve got. Whilst there is no substitute for practice, don’t bank on more than 140 words per minute.

An entrepreneur friend of mine was recently on a global trade tour. With a group of his fellow countrymen he was visiting a load of European countries to sell his great new idea. At each event each member of the group was supposed to stand up, give a two minute elevator pitch and sit down. Every single time, one guy would get up and speak for quarter of an hour, dominated the time available and no-one else got a look in. Needless to say he wasn’t the most popular delegate on the trip.

We’ve all been there. A speaker waffles on for three times as long as anyone anticipates. Sometimes other people miss out on speaking, or they miss their train home. Always it tires the audience. Over the last few years as an observer of public speaking I’ve seen a lot of speakers overrun. Occasionally a speaker keeps going on because they like the sound of their own voice. Mostly, it’s borne out of lack of confidence in the speaker themselves.

The greatest fear of any novice public speaker is running out of material. Not having anything to say in front of audience. To be frozen, silent and exposed. As a consequence novice speakers try to pack more into their speeches than they can possibly hope to say in the time available. Experienced speakers do it too, when they’re in front of new audiences that make them nervous.

The answer of course is to plan to say less. But how much less? That’s the tricky part, because it will depend on a wide range of different things, including the density of the content (does the audience have a lot to take in?) and pauses you are inserting for dramatic effect, but here are some helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way.

  • Since we all speak at different rates, there’s no substitute for practice at home.
  • When performing in front of an audience, I find most speeches take 15% longer than they do with the mirror. That’s a combination of additional pauses for effect, laughter, and allowing the audience to take the content in.
  • If you don’t have time to practice, years of writing my own speeches and reading other people’s suggests most people can say around 140 words a minute clearly, so that’s about 1,000 words in a seven minute speech. (Having said that, one of my favourite speaking blogs, six minutes, analysed a series of TED talks by leading figures and found the average speaking rate was 163 words per minute, with a range of 133-188. If you ask me, many of them would have been a lot better if they’d slowed down
  • Finally, remember that when it comes to speaking, your audience are very unlikely to be more engaged with the subject than you are and the more enthusiastic the speaker the more they want to cram in. If you think it is about the right length, it is probably too long. If you think it is too long, it definitely is. No-one ever condemned a speaker with the words “that presentation was too short”.

Happy speaking!



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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2013 2:17 am

    Hi George,

    Speakers who go over time can be anything from a minor nuisance to a form of minor torture. Interestingly (for me at least) I find that many speakers actually tend to speed up when they are in front of an audience. But the more I think about it the more I suspect the difference will be in the experience of the speaker.

    Experienced speakers recognize opportunities where they can pause for dramatic effect or when they’ve elicited a favorable reaction from their audience and decide to pause so as not to step on a laugh. If they have not planned for this in their speech then they will risk going over the allotted time limit. Inexperienced speakers however often overlook these things, and may be more susceptible to nerves, which will cause them to increase their rate of speaking.

    Ultimately your point about practicing at home and learning your rate of speech is right on the money. Once you know this and learn your tendency to either speed up or slow down when in front of an audience they’ll be able to craft speeches that will tend to come in at just the right length. For me, if I’m going to give my audiences the time to react and respond, a 7 minute speech should be around 950 words.

  2. January 20, 2013 7:57 pm

    Thanks Ian for the comment.

    “Public speaking wisdom” is a most apt nom de plume. As a man who speaks on radio and TV stations, you’d know more than most about the importance of keeping to time. (Incidentally, what do they do to keep you to time? Do you have to be able to cut it down at short notice?)

    You are definitely right that novice speakers speed up when they are speaking. In my experience, it can also means they overrun, and as they worry more, they talk faster and say more unnecessary words so the speeding up brings them little benefit in terms of keeping to their allotted time.

    The answer is, of course, as you suggest, practice and practice before an audience so you have a good feel for how long you, personally take.

  3. January 21, 2013 12:32 am

    Hi George,

    I’ve had very few opportunities to host on air ,but have had numerous opportunities to speak on TV or radio as a guest. My experience has been that usually you are given some parameters about the duration of your interview, but the truth as I have experienced it is that if you are clear concise and most importantly interesting in making your points, you’ll often be given additional time to speak (this probably holds more true for radio than tv). Of course the opposite is true as well. I’ve had a couple of spots where early on in my speaking adventure when a host has shut me down and wrapped things up prematurely, usually because I took too long to get to my point or I became too technical for that particular audience.

    As always, experience and reflection really are the best teachers. =p

    Also, I see what you mean about novice speakers sometimes going all over the map. It’s just been my experience that more often than not they fall short on their time rather than go over (although inexperienced speakers are definitely more likely to do either). I’d be curious to know what some of your other readers think and what their experience has been.

    I’m glad I stumbled on your club’s blog. Thanks for providing a good read.

    All the best…


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