October 6, 2014

Speed Up to Limit Counterargument (and Slow Down When Preaching to the Choir)

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:


The belief is that “fast-talking” applies easily to “lawyer,” just as it naturally attaches to “salesman,” “politician,” or other perceived “slicks” who are able to persuade before their targets quite realize what is happening. But does speed of speech really convey an advantage in persuasion? The answer is a solid, “It depends.” The research cuts both ways. It turns out that faster or slower speaking doesn’t just influence comprehension or credibility, but cognition as well: The factor that makes faster speech more effective in some contexts, but not in others, has to do with what is going on in the minds of those on the receiving end of the message.

It is a practical point for litigators, and one of many questions they need to ask as they adapt to the jury, the bench, the arbitrator, the mediator, the client, or the other side. When do you ramp things up and when do you ease off? The somewhat nuanced advice from the research is that it depends on whether your target audience at that moment is more likely to lean in your favor, or to lean against you on the specific point you are making. When that audience is predisposed against you, then a faster rate is more effective because it tends to limit the amount of internal counterargument the audience is able to engage in. But when the audience is likely to be in your corner already, then a slower rate will free that audience up to reinforce your message as you present it. This dynamic is one more example of a fundamental principle of persuasion: Audiences are active, not passive. Instead of just thinking about what works on them, it helps to also think about what they’ll do with your appeal.

The Slowly Evolving Understanding on the Power of Fast Speech

A post in Psyblog does a good job of providing an overview of the research. In this case, there is a story that occurs in three chapters.

The first chapter is the early research that seemed to show that fast-talking was simply better. A study (Miller et al., 1976) focused on persuading targets on the effects of caffeine. In that study, a message delivered at 195 words per minute (a speed at the upper end of what occurs in conversations) was more persuasive than the same message delivered at 102 words per minute (the lower end of conversational). Based on this study, the early received wisdom was, as Psyblog’s Jeremy Dean notes, “Talking fast seemed to signal confidence, intelligence, objectivity and superior knowledge.”

The second chapter, however, involved some conflicting results. Some studies failed to demonstrate that advantage, and some practical speech coaches began to wonder if advice to the effect of “speak faster” could really be valid advice in all situations.

The third chapter brought in the additional detail. Based on a 1991 study, it turns out that it matters who your audience is and whether they are likely to agree or disagree with you at the moment. Smith and Shaffer (1991) looked at arguments made to college students on the drinking age. When the message was counterattitudinal (an argument made for keeping the age at 21 made to college students below that age), the researchers found that a faster rate of presentation was more effective. But when the message was pro-attitudinal, the opposite effect was observed: The slower rates of presentation were more persuasive.

That stands to reason based on one of the fundamental principles of persuasion: The listeners’ minds are not at rest. Instead, they are processing and elaborating on what they hear. When they hear views they’re motivated against accepting, then their minds are generating counterarguments. The slower that message comes at them, the more counterarguments they are able to develop. That is why a quicker rate is more effective at limiting those arguments. When listeners are hearing something they want to accept, on the other hand, then that time to process, think, and elaborate works in your favor.

The Implications: Slow or Fast Speech in Litigation? 

Obviously a presenter in trial cannot take the time to precisely gauge their own words per minute while still communicating conversationally. Experienced persuaders will still have a sense of when they want to accelerate and when they want to ease off the gas. Often, however, that sense is based on the speaker’s own mood. Instead, that choice should be based on how challenging you perceive the message to be at that moment. When you’re covering a point that your audience is at risk of rejecting, don’t slow down in order to spoon feed it. Instead, speed up in order to hammer the point home.

This need to pace yourself applies in cross-examination as well. A rapid cross-examination is not just advantageous because it induces witnesses to copy that faster pace and give their answers less thought, the faster pace can also encourage the witness — and the jurors as well — to engage in less counterargument in response to the question.

Before I end the post, let me stress one important caveat: When we talk about “fast” or “slow” speech, we are talking about speech at the faster or slower ends of the spectrum that is considered conversational. If your speed exceeds your audience’s comprehension or outstrips your audience’s patience, then you are not communicating.


Other Posts on Delivery: 


Miller, N., Maruyama, G., Beaber, R. J., & Valone, K. (1976). Speed of speech and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology34(4), 615.

Smith, S. M., & Shaffer, D. R. (1991). Celerity and cajolery: Rapid speech may promote or inhibit persuasion through its impact on message elaboration.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin17(6), 663-69.

Photo Credit: Amanda Slater, Flickr Creative Commons


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