Reader Rachel Lu was recently told that she spoke too quickly during an interview. She wrote me to ask if speakingtooquickly or s p e a k I n g t o o s l o w l y matters? What do you think? Does your rate of speech have an impact? Do you think we are less persuaded when information comes at us too fast? Or are we more persuaded by the apparent knowledge and confidence of fast speakers?

Unfortunately, the quick and dirty answer is: It depends!


Why Is Rate of Speech Important?

Researchers have been trying to untangle the relationship between rate of speech and perceptions for some time now. Whether you are a preacher, a sales professional, teacher, lawyer, politician, retail worker, or someone interested in changing jobs (or getting a raise), you will need to convince others to see things your way from time to time. That’s when your rate of speech matters.


Fast Speakers Are More Credible

So, what does the research say? In the late 1970s a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that if people talked at a somewhat fast rate (195 words per minute), they were perceived as more credible, intelligent, socially attractive, and persuasive. The converse was also found to be true. Slow talkers (about 100 words per minute or less) were thought to be unintelligent, lacking credibility. Perhaps this research is what led to fast-talking salesmen?

By the way, to put those numbers in perspective, an average American speaker engaged in friendly conversation speaks at a rate of approximately 110 to 150 WPM. Book publishers generally recommend audio books to be voiced at 150 to 160 WPM, auctioneers are generally 250 to 400 WPM, while the average reading rate is about 200 to 300 WPM.


But Are Fast Speakers More Persuasive?

In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers started to realize that although speaking faster did boost credibility, it didn’t always have a positive impact on persuasion.

A 1991 study by Smith & Shaffer modified the earlier finding by suggesting that although speech rate has an effect on the speaker’s credibility, the actual level of persuasion depends on the message being delivered. If the audience was likely to agree with the message, then slowing down seemed to help or increase persuasiveness (think slow talking Southern preachers). The idea is that providing more time between words gives the audience a chance to agree. However, if the audience is hostile to a message, then slowing down also provides time for them to come up with counter-arguments and is therefore less persuasive.


Don’t Talk Too Fast or Too Slow!

In May 2011 University of Michigan researchers again looked at speech rate (among other speech characteristics) and persuasion. In this specific case, researchers wanted to find out if speech rate influences people’s decisions to participate in telephone surveys. What did they find?

“Interviewers who spoke moderately fast [210 words per minute] were much more successful at getting people to agree than interviewers who talked very fast or very slowly,” said Jose Benki, a research investigator at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).


Include Natural Pauses

Interestingly, the study also looked at pauses. We naturally pause about four or five times per minute in ordinary speech. During the experiment, when the interviewers made no pauses at all, they had the lowest success rate of all, even lower than people who pause too much (or, ah, were, um, seen as, like, disfluent).


Consider Your Audience and Your Message

So what does all this research mean for you on a practical level?

In general, it seems that moderately fast speech, with natural pauses, is the most persuasive. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t true for every situation. What is most important is that you consider your particular audience and your specific message. If you’re “preaching to the choir,” then slowing down (but not much) will be a more persuasive method. If your message may not be easily accepted, then speeding up may help.


Emotions Influence Your Rate of Speaking

From a practical perspective, it’s also important to remember that our emotions influence our rate of speaking. We speak more rapidly when we have something urgent to say, when we’re nervous, when we feel like we are running out of time, or when we’re trying not to be interrupted. We tend to speak slower and with more pauses when we are tired or bored. Remember to make adjustments as necessary.


Your Culture Influences Your Rate of Speaking

Finally, there is a cultural and personal aspect to rate of speech. Some people are naturally fast talkers, while others habitually speak slowly.

In some places, like New York City, people tend to naturally talk faster, while in other locales, like in the southern U.S., people tend to talk slower. Or if you are speaking in a language that isn’t native to you, that will generally slow down your rate of speech.


How Fast Do You Speak?

By now, you’re probably thinking, “I wonder how fast I speak?”

To determine your natural rate of speech, it’s best to record yourself talking for exactly one minute in a few different situations: on the telephone, at the dinner table, in a meeting at work, and delivering a presentation. Then count the number of words you spoke in each minute and average the four. That will give you a rough idea of how fast you speak and help you to see your variability. By first knowing how fast you speak, you can then make adjustments as needed to sway your listeners in any situation.


Want to Learn More?

  • Audiobook: You can listen to excerpts of my audiobook at Audible and iTunes.
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  • Info: Visit lisabmarshall.com to hire Lisa.


This article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips.


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