In the telemarketing game, your voice matters. We all know that frequent verbal ticks, such as “um” and “like,” can turn listeners off. But how about the pace?
A team from the University of Michigan found that telemarketers with certain vocal characteristics were far more persuasive than others. Overall, the study found, the ideal pace of speech is not too fast but not too slow.
A speed of about 3.5 words per second was considered ideal. Slower or faster speakers weren’t as effective at getting people to listen to their pitch. That’s not surprising, the researchers said, since people who talk fast tend to be seen as not trustworthy, while those who speak too slowly are usually perceived as slow-witted or overly pedantic.
So why does the pace of your speech matter?
Let's start by looking at the words in the graphic below.
It's tough to read right? Not impossible, but not fun.
When you speak too fast, you do the same thing with your spoken words. You don't leave any nice spaces of silence between phrases and sentences. This makes you listeners word too hard, and most of the time they will just switch off.
This is a serious problem for you, the speaker, because people will draw conclusions about you based on
- how you speak,
- how you write and
- how you think...in that order.
As Lord Chesterfield summed it up, "The manner of your speaking is full as important as the matter, as more people have ears to be tickled than understanding to judge."
There have been heaps of scientific studies that back this up. Fast talkers often get credit for being smart, but they are also more likely to be criticised behind their backs!
When psychologists first began examining the effect of speech rate on persuasion, they thought the answer was obvious. Your fast talking slick salesman would win.
In 1976 Norman Miller and colleagues tried to convince participants that caffeine was bad for them (Miller et al., 1976). The results suggested people were most persuaded when the message was delivered at a fully-caffeinated 195 words per minute rather than at a decaffeinated 102 words per minute.
At 195 words per minute, about the fastest that people speak in normal conversation, the message became more credible to those listening, and therefore more persuasive. Talking fast seemed to signal confidence, intelligence, objectivity and superior knowledge. Going at about 100 words per minute, the usual lower limit of normal conversation, was associated with all the reverse attributes.
These results, along with a couple of other studies, lead some researchers to think that speaking quickly was a potential ‘magic bullet’ of persuasion. Perhaps we should watch out for people who speak quickly—who knows what we might agree to.
By the 1980s, though, other researchers had begun to wonder if these results could really be correct. They pointed to studies suggesting that while talking faster seemed to boost credibility, it didn’t always boost persuasion. The effects of talking fast might not all be positive; for example, when someone talks quickly it can be hard to keep up with what they are saying, so the persuasive message doesn’t have a chance to take hold.
By the 1990s a more nuanced relationship between speech rate and persuasion emerged. Stephen Smith and David Shaffer, for example, tried to convince one group of student participants the legal age for drinking should be kept at 21 (Smith & Shaffer, 1991). Another group they tried to persuade the age should not be 21 (this was shortly after the legal age for drinking in the US was raised to 21).
Fast, slow and intermediate speech rates were employed and this time a telling twist emerged. When the message was counter-attitudinal (you’ll be amazed to hear that college students don’t like the idea they can’t legally drink in bars), fast talking was more persuasive than the intermediate, with slow talking being the least persuasive of all.
Exactly the reverse effect was seen when the message was pro-attitudinal. When preaching to the converted, it was slow speech that emerged as the most persuasive.
The question became: why does the effect reverse when the audience is hostile to the message? Here’s what seems to happen. When an audience starts hearing a message it doesn’t like (no beer for you), but slowly, it has time to come up with counter-arguments, so less persuasion occurs. However when the speech is quicker there’s less time to come up with these counter-arguments, so more persuasion.
It works the other way around when the audience does like the message (loads of beer for you). When the message comes in too quickly, there isn’t time to evaluate and agree with it more. But, when it comes in slow, there’s plenty of time to evaluate the arguments, agree and be even more persuaded that you should be able to drink in bars.
In fact, speed by itself is rarely the issue. The constant speed is what causes the trouble. People who speak at a constant clip, whether slow or fast, are likely to frustrate their listeners. They not only bore us with their own special brand of monotony (sameness of speed), they undermine the natural physical aspect of speech.
Speech is physical because it comes from the body. We need to remind ourselves of that. It's not just a mental exercise. Talking engages the muscles of the abdomen, the throat, the tongue, and the lips. Speech literally embodies ideas—it brings ideas, thoughts and logic onto the physical plane.
But speech carries more than words and logic. Since it comes from the body, it creates physical sensations in listeners. It is, at bottom, sound. And we are all familiar with the power of sound to create mood and feeling. Think of chalk on a blackboard, a door creaking open, wind in the branches of pines at night. Many sounds, not just music, have qualities that stir us deeply. Your voice, used effectively, has that same power. But speaking too fast tends to rob your voice of its physical resonance, creating sound that is divorced from the rhythm of a good, deep breath.
Fast talking is often perceived as a sign of nervousness and a sign of low self-confidence. Many people will interpret your fat talking as a sign that you don't think people want to listen to you, or that what you have to say is not important.
When you don't pause between phrases or sentences it often puts a strain on your voice. Your run out of breath so the words near the end of your sentences lack volume and clarity.
When you fly through your words, your tongue and lips often can't keep up with your mind. You then start to drop important vowels and consonants, causing your listeners to miss your meaning. And when they miss your meaning, most won't tell you that they can't understand you.
So how do you slow down?
Here is an exercise used by actors when they first learn a script.
You take that sentence from earlier and mark it with a slash wherever you want to insert a pause. For example:
I think I talk too fast / but now I'm told / that I just need / to introduce more pauses.
Actors will take this approach to their entire script. And by doing this you will find that the deliberate pauses will stop you from running away with your speech.
By practising this way, you will learn that you don't need to talk so fast and become comfortable talking at a slower pace.
Look people in the eye when speaking. That will slow you down because you get feedback from your listener. You can see whether or not your listener understands what you're saying. That sense of connection with your target will help you pace your words so they hit the mark.
Breathe more often. You will have more energy for your voice. You will feel calmer. You will have enough air to keep the energy in your voice right through to the end of the phrase.
Click here to read an article on breathing.
Pause between phrases. The pauses will give your listeners a chance to digest what you've said. Speech that comes from a person who is breathing deeply and regularly is easier to hear and understand. Click here to read an article on pausing.