What is the Average Speaking Rate?

A long-time reader asks:

What’s the average speaking rate? Is it better to speak faster or is is better to speak slower?

In this article, we answer these questions and look at the factors which influence your speaking rate, a critical component of your delivery.

How to calculate your speaking rate

The most common way to express one’s speaking rate is in words per minute (wpm). To calculate this, simply take the total number of words spoken and divide by the number of minutes it took you to speak them.

Speaking Rate (wpm) = Total words / # of minutes

Another way to measure speaking rate is in syllables per minute (spm):

Speaking Rate (spm) = Total syllables / # of minutes

Why syllables per minute? Not all words are equal. Consider these two sentences:

  1. Modern readability tests are designed to indicate comprehension difficulty when reading a passage of contemporary academic English. (17 words; 41 syllables)
  2. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. (17 words; 19 syllables)

If you were to speak these two sentences at the same rate in words per minute, the first passage would seem considerably faster because you are saying more.

Despite the sensibility of using syllables/minute, the words/minute measure is more commonly used, because it is generally easier to calculate.

How to determine your speaking rate

A really quick estimate of your speaking rate can be obtained by timing yourself while reading a selection of text with a known word count. Then, simply calculate using the method above.

But, this is not really your speaking rate. It’s your reading rate. Even if you to read out loud, it’s not the same thing as a speaking rate.

The best way to determine your speaking rate is to time yourself delivering a real speech with a real audience. (Video helps — you can count your words from it too.)

What is the average speaking rate?

The average speaking rate will vary across languages and situations. But, rather than dodging the question entirely, let’s come up an estimate given a fairly narrow speaking situation — TED talks — which we often study in Six Minutes speech critiques.

I analyzed 9 TED talks which have been critiqued on Six Minutes. These talks ranged from just under 7 minutes in length to just under 20 minutes. Some speakers used visuals, some did not. Their topics were widely variable. [Click the links in the table below to view these speeches and read the critiques. Note that the Steve Jobs talk was not delivered at a TED conference, but is included on the TED website.]

SpeakerSpeaking Rate (words/minute)
Al Gore133
Becky Blanton153
Dan Pink155
Steve Jobs158
Hans Rosling161
Majora Carter167
Ken Robinson168
Elizabeth Gilbert187
Jacqueline Novogratz188
  • For these 9 talks, the average speaking rate is 163 words per minute.
  • Two thirds of the talks are clustered in a narrow range between 153 and 168 words per minute.
  • Remember that this average and range do not necessarily apply to all speaking situations.

One can also calculate the speaking rate for the 9 TED talks in syllables per minute, and these results are shown below, sorted in the same order as in the words/minute chart above.

  • The most notable difference using the syllables/minute measure is that of Majora Carter. She has a much higher syllables/word count (1.62) compared to the others, which all fall between 1.43 and 1.54. More frequent use of longer words is one factor which contributes to my perception that she’s talking too fast.

What influences your overall speaking rate?

There are many factors which influence your overall speaking rate:

  • Your normal speaking rate
    This is a product of your birth, your culture, and your history (family, profession, etc.) Some people talk faster. Some people talk slower. Neither is inherently good or bad.
  • Nervousness and stress
    Speaking under pressure tends to make you speak faster. I am not immune to this trait. If I’m speaking with notes of any kind, I’ll often write “SLOW DOWN” in red ink in the margin as a reminder.
  • Mental fatigue
    If you are tired, you will tend to speak slower. You’ll also tend to make more mistakes which further slows your effective speaking rate.
  • Complexity of the words
    If you’re measuring speaking rate in words per minute, then longer words will usually slow down your speaking rate.
  • Complexity of content
    Longer sentences and more complex speech content means more pauses are necessary, and this will slow down your speaking rate, too. This is desirable because it helps your audience — they need more time to mentally process longer sentences and more complex content. However, it would help them more to simplify your content and shorten your sentences.
  • Verbal pauses
    Insertion of natural pauses in your verbal delivery will slow your speaking rate, but the gains in understandability are worth it!
  • Extra pauses induced by you
    Every time you stop to checking your notes, think to search for a word, show a prop or slide, or demonstrate something, your speaking rate drops. Often, the benefits of doing these things outweighs the drawbacks. [Some of these pauses can be reduced by more thorough preparation.]
  • Extra pauses induced by your audience
    When your audience applauds or laughs, this slows you down too. Larger audiences tend to induce larger delays.
  • Extra pauses induced by the environment
    These are harder to predict, but you should allow for them. For example, loud noises outside the room or other distractions may force you to pause, or repeat yourself.

All but the last two factors are completely within your control, and even those last two factors can be predicted somewhat.

Is it better to speak faster or is is better to speak slower?

It depends, but if you are anywhere close to the range of the speakers analyzed above (133 to 188 words/minute), you’re fine.

Generally, slower is more intelligible than faster speech. Appropriate pauses allow your audience time to digest what you’ve said and begin to process it. However, instead of worrying too much about your numerical speaking rate, it probably would be better to focus on improving your clarity and lowering the complexity of your language.

  • Clarity: Good enunciation, sharp pronunciation, and proper stresses will produce clear language and make it easy for your audience to hear each word.
  • Complexity: By simplifying words and simplifying your sentences by eliminating unnecessary words, you become much more understandable.

Vary your speaking rate!

No matter what your average speaking rate is over the entire speech, you should always vary it within a speech. Don’t deliver sentence after sentence at the same exact rate. Varying your speech rate adds life to your vocal delivery, and allows you to convey both meaning and emotional content.

For example, you can speak a little faster to convey excitement, or a little slower to reflect sadness or confusion.

Final Thoughts

I know very few people who speak considerably too slow, but many who speak too fast. Because of the common tendency to put too much content into our presentations, we tend to speak at a blazing speed to get through it all. So, in general, slow down!

Like many delivery characteristics, the best way to be aware of whether you are doing it well is to solicit feedback. Ask trusted audience members whether your pace was too slow, too fast, or just right.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.