Cara Hale Alter has spent two decades studying why some smart, capable people project credibility and others don’t. Those who don’t project credibility often struggle to succeed, particularly in today’s recession-weary workplace and job market.
Alter has identified 25 specific visual and auditory cues that affect the perception of credibility. And unlike countless other cues, such as gender, age, or physical features, these 25 cues are “within your active control,” she says.
In her new book, “The Credibility Code: How to Project Confidence and Competence When It Matters Most” (Meritus, 2012), Alter shows what credibility looks like.
She describes the 25 behavioral cues—explicit “codes of conduct” for posture, gestures, vocal skills, and eye contact—and demonstrates how to embody them in all your business interactions, including interviews, meetings, and presentations, whether in-person or virtual. Additionally, she offers case studies, self-assessment tools, and online access to demo videos.
By Cara Hale Alter
VOCAL CODE #3: Keep Your Pacing Relaxed
When watching scary movies in my younger years, I often would fast-forward though the suspenseful parts. Instead of watching the heroine tiptoe down the creaky hallway and slowly open the rusty attic door, she’d waddle comically back and forth, fling the door open, and melodramatically throw her hands up in surprise when a dead body tumbled out. The pace, or tempo, of any interaction can have a big impact on its mood and credibility.
Your speaking pace, or words per minute, affects the tone and credibility of your content. It’s similar to how the tempo of music affects the mood of the performance. Any piece of music has a range of tempo that is appropriate for the separate movements, and the same is true for spoken language. Generally, the faster the pace, the more upbeat and positive the message; the slower the pace, the more calm, serene, or serious it is. Speak too fast, and it becomes frenetic or comic; speak too slowly, and it becomes tedious or boring. A comfortable listening pace is about 170 words per minute, give or take 10 words or so in either direction, depending on the mood.
Remember that the pace of your speech will affect how the listener perceives you. The more slowly you speak, the more confident and authoritative you come across; your message is important, and you have the authority to take up the listener’s time. Conversely, the more quickly you speak, the less confident you seem. A fast pace often is associated with an infusion of adrenalin, so a person who speaks quickly can appear to be nervous.
The most common pacing problem is people who talk too quickly. It’s a rare individual who speaks too slowly, and even then the problem is usually a lack of energy or too many filler words (ahh, ya’ know, like, ummm).
A fast speaking pace is a common problem in business settings. Time runs over, and you have less time to present your ideas than planned. In this situation, most people will speed up and try to say everything faster. Sadly, this lowers listener retention, and you are likely to look more nervous and less prepared. Imagine you are at a concert that is running long: Would it be effective for the conductor to play the last three songs 50 percent faster? It is best to cut some content than to deliver poorly the information you have.
Slowing down will do many positive things for your image. You will appear more in control, and your audience will have more time to digest the message. Nonetheless, we tend to speed up when we feel less secure with our content. But this is the very time when it would be helpful to slow down to collect and order our thoughts more effectively. Slowing down also makes it easier to eliminate those useless filler sounds.
The Power of the Pause
It’s the novice graphic designer who fills every corner of the page with information. The experienced graphic designer understands that white space helps sell the message. Be willing to add a little temporal white space to your conversation. Do not fear the pause. As Mark Twain once said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
We think that if we pause we will appear less intelligent or prepared, or even as boring. Research confirms the exact opposite: People who pause more in their conversations come across as more intelligent and better prepared.
From the speaker’s point of view, a pause can seem unbearably long. From the listeners’ point of view, pauses are quite comfortable. It’s good customer service for listeners because they have the chance to lock the information away. And remember to let a well-placed pause be a pause; don’t ruin it with darting eyes or filler noise. Allow a moment of silence to work its retentive power.
Pausing also shows you have command of the conversation. Many people fear that if they pause they will be interrupted. And, yes, listeners might well jump in at a pause if the sound of your words is the only clue that you are still speaking. But if all the other positive attributes of your speaking style are present—direct eye contact, strong posture, speaking with expression—listeners will see you’re not finished and wait for you to continue.
As a side note, depending on the geographical region and demographic, the speaking pace of the general population may vary. In the United States, urban New Yorkers tends to be on the fast side, while rural Georgians tend to speak more slowly. People in their 20s enjoy a faster listening pace than people in their 50s. Of course, these are generalizations: Individuals vary. But it’s important to consider these differences when communicating. If you speak at about 170 words per minute, your pace will be appropriate just about anywhere you go.
Practice Exercise: Test your words per minute
Test your own speaking rate by reading the following paragraph at a pace you think is energized but not rushed. Since a comfortable listening pace is about 170 words per minute, it should take you about 60 seconds to read aloud. If your pace is more than a few seconds fast or slow, practice reading the paragraph until you can more closely achieve a 60-second pace.
A manufacturer of flooring materials needed to increase market share. Management was about to launch an incentive program to boost dealer sales. But during a planning session, the operations manager wisely observed that his department would need to increase its skilled labor force and upgrade equipment to handle increased sales volumes. He remembered flat sales years that prompted a downsizing in operations. The incentive meeting came to a cold, stark halt.
One manager bolted to the white board. Other department managers jumped in to add their own details to a rough flow chart of the company’s overall business cycle, from the purchase of raw materials to after-sale customer service. The revised flow chart revealed that a plan to increase sales, implemented without considering all aspects of their business cycle flow, would disrupt several areas of the business.
The firm’s management began improving all points in their business cycle until they were certain they could process additional sales. Only then did they begin what became a successful incentive program for their dealers.
—Robert S. Dawson, “The Secret to Incentive Program Success: Incentive ROI That Makes Bean Counters Smile!”(TBG Publications, 2009)
Practice Exercise: Insert a two-snap pause
One way to practice pausing is to add a two-second pause at the end of each thought. Take a moment to describe your hometown or read a passage aloud from a book, snapping your fingers twice at the end of each sentence. The idea is to get comfortable coming to a complete stop.
When I lead this exercise in my workshops, I do the snapping while the participant speaks. While this pause can seem inordinately long to some speakers, especially if they’re used to rushing, inevitably the workshop participants report it’s far easier to absorb the message with the pauses inserted.
Excerpt from “The Credibility Code: How to Project Confidence and Competence When It Matters Most” by Cara Hale Alter (Meritus, 2012). For more information, visit http://www.thecredibilitycode.com.
Cara Hale Alter, president of SpeechSkills, a San Francisco-based communication training company, has spent two decades studying why some smart, capable people project credibility and others don’t. Those who don’t project credibility often struggle to succeed, particularly in today’s recession-weary workplace and job market.