Vary your tempo for a dynamic, resonant presentation

There’s a musicality to a successful talk, and savvy speakers act as maestros, using rests and crescendos, to deliver a theme.

Tempo is “the pace or speed at which a section of music is played,” according to “We can think of the tempo as the speedometer of the music.”

I think of tempo a lot during our presentation training sessions, but I tend to think of it most when a speaker is showing (or discussing) many examples.

Let’s say the speaker is discussing an important photography exhibition and wants to show 15 different works. Too often, the speaker will establish a baseline tempo and keep to it throughout the talk.

Typically, they’ll show an image, give the photo’s backstory for a couple of minutes, then show the next photo, talk for a couple of minutes, and continue using the same tempo for the duration.

When charted, their talk might look something like this:

OPEN (3 minutes)

EXAMPLE ONE (2 minutes)

EXAMPLE TWO (2 minutes)

EXAMPLE THREE (2 minutes)

EXAMPLE FOUR (2 minutes)

CLOSE (3 minutes)

The risk with that pattern is that it becomes predictable. The tempo becomes its own sort of monotone, one that offers no surprises to the audience.

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When working with clients delivering such a talk, I recommend that they alter the tempo of their examples. Some should be grave (a musical term meaning slow), and others should be prestissimo (very fast).

Their revised talk might look like this:

OPEN (3 minutes)

EXAMPLE ONE (2 minutes)

EXAMPLE TWO (25 seconds)

EXAMPLE THREE (1 minute 15 seconds)

EXAMPLE FOUR (3 minutes)

CLOSE (3 minutes)

The subtle unpredictability of that pacing helps sustain audience attention-suspense is a vital element of storytelling, and it can be used in this context as well-and avoids the monotony of a predictable pattern.

An alternative is to choose a few examples at the beginning of your talk to highlight with longer examples, then quicken the tempo with a series of shorter, staccato bursts.

That version might be charted as follows:

EXAMPLES ONE—THREE (3 minutes each)

EXAMPLES FOUR—TEN (30 seconds each)

Tempo is always an important concept in public speaking, but it’s particularly easy to apply during talks that call for numerous examples. Try this technique the next time you have the opportunity to deliver such a talk.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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