December 1, 2010

Speak (Quickly) to Your Toughest Jurors

by: Dr. Kevin Boully

Speed Limit 190 
Boully_Kevin_88_120 I don’t need to tell you that jurors’ ability to process information – including your spoken words – varies widely and can affect trial outcomes.  So, how fast do you speak in the courtroom?  Do you switch to a special “jury gear” once the jury is seated?  Is it faster or slower than when you speak to your friends and family?  What conclusions do jurors draw from your jury voice and your rate of speech in particular?  A few research findings highlight the effects of faster and slower speech on persuasion that may surprise you. 

In past research Dr. Karen Lisko found that slightly faster than normal speech (‘normal’ being between 120 and 180 words per minute) boosts witness credibility and persuasion, finding that a faster rate of speech for both male and female witnesses demonstrated enhanced credibility by proving more dynamic than slower witness speech.i  A recent post also highlights the possibility that faster speech is more persuasive when your audience is predisposed against your message and slower speech is more persuasive when your audience already favors your position.  That’s all well and good, but what do these findings mean for you? 

First, consider the explanations.  Faster speech may prevent your tougher audience from critiquing thoroughly all your persuasive points and developing their own counterarguments.   The phenomenon is analogous to the limits of working memory – when juror brains are fully occupied with interpreting rapid speech, there simply isn’t enough horsepower left to poke holes in the actual arguments.  At least some of your persuasive points cross the finish line unchallenged.  Slower speech to your “fan club” jurors succeeds through the converse mechanism:  slower speech rate allows jurors’ brains time to process and bolster your arguments with their own favorable opinions and beliefs.  For this set of jurors, slow and steady wins the race. 

Consider also the Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion, which predicts that motivated and capable jurors generally evaluate your case through an effortful analysis of the evidence while less motivated or less capable jurors rely on simple shortcuts to aid their final decision – shortcuts like the finding that faster speech equates to greater persuasiveness, competence, and credibility.ii  Alison Bennett’s article in this month’s issue of The Jury Expert discusses the impact of low IQ on jury decision-making by pointing out that less capable jurors often rely more heavily on first impressions and are more likely to rely on emotional responses as shortcuts to detailed analysis.  Speech rate is one of many shortcuts the less motivated and less capable may use to guide their decisions. 

So what if your toughest audience on the jury is neither motivated to hear your story nor predisposed to favor your case, as is often the reality for many defendants? 

(1)  Speak to your toughest audience on the jury.  In this case, that means prioritizing your arguments and evidence for jurors who are predisposed against you and who are not motivated to hear your position.  The same applies to themes

(2)  Present oral argument in a faster-than-normal rate.  The combination of research findings and our experience suggests a slightly faster speech rate is ideal for this tougher audience.  It demonstrates your dynamism and competence, serving as a shortcut to your credibility.  It also limits jurors’ ability to create counterarguments on the fly and shoot down your positions as you reveal them. 

(3)  Improve comprehension through repetition, not slow speech.  It may seem counterintuitive; especially considering a juror with a lower IQ.  Your desire to ‘make them understand’ by speaking slowly and methodically is likely not the solution you assumed it to be.  Speak quickly and confidently and if you’re concerned that less capable jurors will not comprehend, reinforce your message with appropriate repetition rather than slow and methodical speech. 


i Lisko, K.O.  (1992).  Juror perceptions of witness credibility as a function of linguistic and nonverbal power.  Doctoral Dissertation.  The University of Kansas. 

BURGOON, J., BIRK, T., & PFAU, M. (1990). Nonverbal Behaviors, Persuasion, and Credibility Human Communication Research, 17 (1), 140-169 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1990.tb00229.x

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