a train is going over a bridge with smoke coming out of it

#9: The runaway train

Bob Ewing
March 26, 2021
a train is going over a bridge with smoke coming out of it

Talking Big Ideas.

“Seems like I should be getting somewhere.
Somehow I’m neither here nor there.”
~ Soul Asylum, Runaway Train

How fast do you talk?

Franklin Roosevelt spoke about 110 words a minute. He was slow. John F. Kennedy averaged 180. He was fast. Most of us fall somewhere in between.

Martin Luther King Jr. began his I Have a Dream speech slower than Roosevelt, and ended on pace with Kennedy.

Excellent speakers have different speeds. But they are intentional. They control their pace. They clarify their key ideas — and drive them home by pausing and slowing down.

Tim Koegel, the bestselling author of The Exceptional Presenter series, writes:

Listen to exceptional presenters. They take their time. They articulate their thoughts. They don’t rush. By pausing and breathing, they are able to make words, phrases, numbers, and statistics stand out.

By contrast, nervous and unaware presenters typically talk too fast and ramble.

Kim Hemsley sees this on occasion. She’s a fantastic coach who runs the training program at the Mercatus Center. She dubbed it The Runaway Train.

As she explains, “The train gets on a track, and it just keeps going. There’s no pausing. There’s no break. It ends up out of control.”

The Runaway Train means speaking at a rapid pace without getting to the point. The speaker ends up lost, losing their audience along the way.

I find it’s most common in new speakers, academics, and excited extroverts. In fact, almost all of us have pulled a Runaway Train at some point.

Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to fix.

Dale Carnegie, the legendary speaking coach, helped countless people stop rambling. He taught them to polish and front load their ideas, and keep their content focused.

For pacing, Carnegie advocated the sweet spot between 120 and 150 words a minute. Fall below 120, he would say, and audiences may get bored. Go above 150, which is far more common, and audiences may get lost.

In a nutshell, Runaway Trains disappear with intention. The more clarity we have on our content, the less we ramble. And the more aware we are of our pacing, the better we control it.



We often speak too fast and ramble. By being intentional, we avoid these issues and better connect with our audience.

Find out how fast you talk.

Record a clip of yourself speaking. (If you already have a recording of a speech you’ve given, even better.) Consider using a speech-to-text app like Otter. Talk for at least a minute, ideally two or three. Afterwards, count your words or copy and paste them into a word counter tool.

If you average more than 150 per minute, practice slowing down and pausing more.


I’ll admit that I’m often guilty of rambling at Maryrose.

This weekend I was able to hold back for a few minutes. We drove to the beach, and enjoyed sitting in silence together as the sun set over the Pacific. It was beautiful.

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