by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
One hard of hearing lady vented,
I get very annoyed when people speak too fast. I have great difficulty understanding them and miss a lot. I wish radio and TV announcers, public speakers, etc. would speak slower so I have a hope of understanding most of what they say. I’m sure millions of other hard of hearing people feel the same way.
You are right. I feel the same way as you do.
There are several reasons people speak fast.
One—they have a habitual speaking voice, and it runs on autopilot. This means their speech volume, speed and inflection are all habits. If they are naturally fast speakers, it is very hard for them to change this habit.
Different people groups speak at different speeds. For example, here in the USA, typically, northerners speak faster than southerners. Although I’m a northerner, I love the slower-paced southern drawl. It gives me more time to understand what the person is saying.
Two—speaking fast creates excitement and stirs people to action. That is why most ads are spoken so fast. They don’t want you to logically think about what you are hearing. They just want you to act—and buy their product.
However, in order to act, you have to clearly understand the message. I wonder if the advertisers have ever considered that because they speak so fast, they lose a significant portion of the population that can’t hear and process sounds that fast—so they don’t buy their products?
Obviously they don’t think about the 15% to 20% of the population that are hard of hearing. If they slowed down, maybe their sales would go up a few percentage points. If that’s the case, it would be worth it to them to speak slower and get more sales—more bang for their advertising dollars.
Three—time is money, especially when you are spending big bucks for radio and TV commercials. Thus advertisers like to cram as many words as they can into the allotted time slot. In order to do that, they need to speak fast.
In the same vein, when making public service announcements (that don’t bring in revenue) the tendency is to talk fast so they can get back to revenue-producing programs. For example, the radio station I like to listen to has periodic traffic accident reports so you know which roads to avoid due to accidents. Unfortunately, they rattle off the various accident locations so fast I cannot understand where they are talking about. Thus, I can’t begin to figure out how to avoid the accident sites. By deliberately talking fast, they are discriminating against both hard of hearing people and elderly people since both groups of people take more time to process speech than younger people with normal hearing.
Four—people, especially public speakers, often have too much to say and too little time to say it, so they hurry through their presentations, especially near the end when they realize they are running out of time. This is just counter-productive. You see, many public speakers, including the media, don’t understand that we hard of hearing people need more time to process what we are hearing. Therefore, we need them to go slower and make frequent pauses so our brains can catch up during the pauses.
There was a book that came out a number of years ago. It’s title said it all. It went something like this, “If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, when will you ever have time to do it over?” If you, as a public speaker, hurry through your presentation because you have so much to say and just a short time available to say it, and a hard of hearing person raises a hand and asks you to repeat it (and maybe repeat it again) because you are saying it too fast, you aren’t going to get through your presentation anyway. In the long run, you will be more productive if you slow down so people don’t have to interrupt you so often and ask for repeats. Just shorten the material you cover in your presentation.
Five—people naturally change the volume and speed of their voices for emphasis. As you know, listening to a speaker speaking slowly at a constant volume is boring. You need vocal variety, but there is a right and a wrong way to do this.
Toastmasters International in their wonderful program to teach people how to speak in public has a lesson on “Vocal Variety”. They tell you to vary your speaking speed and your volume.
For example, when you come to an important part of your presentation, you are taught to drop your voice. The idea behind this is to make your listeners lean forward and really pay attention to something important in order to catch it. This may work for hearing people, but so often this technique just backfires because we hard of hearing people can’t just “listen harder” and catch it. Thus, we miss the very important point you were trying to make.
You might as well have saved your breath and not given the presentation in the first place—and we are thinking that. And furthermore, we won’t be coming back to hear you speak again because you just wasted our valuable time too.
In like manner, speakers typically drop their voice for the punch line of jokes. I have heard hundreds and hundreds of jokes over the years—and I’ve missed hundreds of punch lines. So while everyone is laughing at the joke, we hard of hearing people are sitting there wondering what was so funny.
Let me give you an example. One time I was speaking at a Toastmasters training session on public speaking techniques. I pointed out that the manual says to drop your voice for important points and for the punch lines of jokes. I pointed out that when a speaker does this, we hard of hearing people almost always miss the punch line. This is totally frustrating.
In order to drive the point home, I told the following joke.
The chief of staff of the US Air Force decided that he would personally intervene in the recruiting crisis affecting all of our armed services. He directed that a nearby Air Force base be opened and that all eligible young men and women be invited. As he and his staff were standing near an brand new F-15 Fighter, twin brothers who looked like they had just stepped off a Marine Corps recruiting poster walked up to them.
The chief of staff stuck out his hand and introduced himself. He looks at the first young man and asks, “Son, what skills can you bring to the Air Force?”
The young man looks at him and says, “I’m a pilot!”
The general gets all excited, turns to his aide and says, “Get him in today, all the paper work done—everything—do it!” The aide hustles the young man off.
The general looks at the second young man and asks, “What skills to you bring to the Air Force?”
The young man says, “I chop wood!”
“Son,” the general replies, “we don’t need wood choppers in the Air Force, what do you know how to do?”
“I chop wood!”
“Young man,” huffs the general, “you are not listening to me, we don’t need wood choppers, this is the 21st century!”
“Well,” the young man says, “you hired my brother!”
“Of course we did,” says the general, “he’s a pilot!”
The young man rolls his eyes and says, “Dang it general”, (and at this point I deliberately dropped my voice for the punch line and just mouthed the words to simulate what we hard of hearing people hear and said “… … … … … … … … …”.
As I expected, there was no laughter although this was a funny joke.
What’s is the solution? Speak slower and deliberately. Then, when you come to the punch line, change your emphasis. Learn how to emphasize words without lowering your voice. You can do this though body language, facial expression, vocal tension, timing and the stress you give to certain words. Just don’t do it by dropping your voice!
You see, when you lower your voice, it just drops out of our dynamic range and we hear nothing—just like turning off my voice did when I gave the above presentation.
How are you feeling now? It’s not a very satisfying joke when you miss the punch line, is it? I’ll bet you are feeling downright frustrated, aren’t you?
I won’t leave you frustrated as I end this article, so here is the punch line of the above joke.
“…“Well,” the young man says, “you hired my brother!”
“Of course we did,” says the general, “he’s a pilot!”
The young man rolls his eyes and says, “Dang it general, I have to chop it before he can pile it!”