I was calmly sitting in the back of a large group of about 40 women in attendance waiting to lead a workshop. The facilitator who we will call Faye came up to me and quickly introduced herself.  I could see she was a fast talker no-nonsense type of person who had held a variety of roles in sales and marketing.  Faye began the day talking like a New Yorker on speed and as I am slowly sipping my tea in the back of the room, I start to feel uncomfortable; she is lecturing the group of women like they were children. Looking around the room, as Faye spoke, I could feel the air being sucked out of the room.  When she asked if there were any questions, everyone looked at their shoes.

We took a break and Faye asked me for feedback being that she was new at facilitating groups. I took a breath in contemplation and shared my observations, “Being a New Yorker, it seemed like you were talking extremely fast. However, you didn’t engage the group until the end when you asked if there were any questions.  No one spoke up so I wouldn’t assume the group agreed to your suggestions.” To my pleasant surprise, she didn’t get defensive and agreed with my assessment.

After the break, although she still talked fast, she returned to the front of the room and started asking questions to get people to share their experiences.  In the end, she gained the women’s agreement on steps to fix the problem but the group still seemed on edge as everyone who spoke seemed rushed and uncomfortable.

With my turn to present, I was curious if I could change the emotional cadence in the room. My goal was to SLOW THINGS DOWN.  I looked around the room before saying a word and smiled while making eye contact. I started speaking, looking at one person at a time per sentence.

After two hours, I realized that although the women were sharing their views, they still appeared nervous and rushed. It was apparent that being a role-model with a slow cadence was not enough.  During an exercise, one woman started speaking as she stood up and was mumbling her words.  I immediately interrupted her and asked if I could make an observation. She wholeheartedly agreed.  I spoke in as non-judgmental way as possible, “I want to share an observation of what is happening in the room when you stand up to speak. You start talking while seated, we can’t hear everything you are saying as this room is large and then as you stand up, you continue talking at a rapid rate without looking around the room. The result is that we don’t completely hear what you have to say and you don’t appear comfortable or confident in your message or yourself.” The room went quiet, appearing to be surprised. I asked if the group agreed or perhaps saw it differently.  One by one, the women let out some sighs of relief and laughter. Given that they have spent the last six-months with Faye, speaking fast was the norm.

I demonstrated a few small steps that the women could make when speaking:

  • Stand up first before speaking.
  • Look around the room and smile briefly for 1-2 seconds.
  • Introduce yourself looking at one person at a time.
  • Speak at a pace of one sentence per person. Continue this rhythm moving around the entire room.
  • Don’t get stuck speaking to the person who asked the question.
  • Sit down quietly after you have finished speaking or there has been applause.

These tips might seem like something learned in kindergarten but I rarely see seasoned executives practice these steps. By the end of the day, everyone had reduced their pace. There was more conversation, engagement, and laughter.  What surprised me most is the women shared that despite all the research, exercises, and content, they had witnessed that day, their most powerful learning was to SLOW DOWN. When Faye closed out the day, she thanked me stating that after watching me and being in the room, she felt calmer and was speaking at a much slower pace.

Why does SLOWING DOWN matter?  It matters a lot whether you are a business executive, writer, student, or professional athlete.  It is impossible to do your best work, innovate, or write your best sentence if you are constantly rushing.  I was reminded about the power of stepping back while getting beat up at a recent tennis match.  I started out losing the first two games in the set to a fast moving, hard hitting opponent, and panicked until I realized that I needed to take a breather. Once I did, I realized that she wasn’t as consistent as I was nor was she a great mover. Jim Loehr, a well known sports psychologist, has proven that the tennis players who take 16 seconds between points, play in a more relaxed and effective manner. By not rushing, I was able to get back into the match and win.

cuddy wonderwomanPausing or taking a few breadths throughout the day or even in the middle of a speech helps bring you into the present.  Amy Cuddy, the author of this month’s recommended reading, Presence, defines presence as, “state of begin attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential.  It is not a permanent, transcendent mode of being. It comes and goes. It is a moment-to-moment- phenomenon.”   The two key points in this definition are that being present means you are comfortable or somewhat relaxed so you can perform well and it comes and goes which means you need to constantly be self-aware and make small nudges to STAY PRESENT.

My mentee, Natalia a 20-year old college senior, had to give a speech to accept an award in front of 1,000+ people.  She had practiced for over two months and was ready.  My advice to her was to pause anytime she felt nervous or speaking too fast. Sure enough, she started the speech by talking briskly but then she took a moment, which allowed her true passion and story to arise, inspiring the audience and bringing tears to my eyes.

Has slowing down helped you? Let me know!


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