Original Research: The “Slow Down” Myth

Recently, we came across an article on the “science” of voice that stated, matter-of-factly but without any references, that the optimal speaking rate is 120 to 160 words per minute. This article is just one of many: we’ve read countless other books and articles that have proposed similar ranges.

As it turns out, this range is a myth. All of the peer-reviewed studies we’ve read have actually found rates quite a bit higher than this. As we write in The Science of Speaking, “a wide variety of studies [in the book, we cite six] have been conducted to determine listeners’ preferences for speaking rate, finding optimal rates ranging from 163 to 225 words per minute.”

Unfortunately, despite an abundance of research that supports this higher range (and none that we know of that supports the lower range), the myth that we must speak slowly persists.

To put this myth to rest for once and for all, we conducted one more study of speaking rate: an observational study of the most successful speakers. Using the time-stamped transcripts of the ten most popular TED talks†, we calculated the speaking rate of each speaker.‡ The results of this analysis are presented below:

Only two speakers—Jill Bolte Taylor and Dan Pink—were within the mythical range, and even they were at the very top of it (155 and 156 wpm, respectively). Most speakers spoke at rates well outside the range, at an average rate of 176 wpm. Three speakers, Cameron Russell, Ken Robinson, and Tony Robbins, approached (or even exceeded) 200 wpm (194, 195 and 214 wpm, respectively). Given that each of these ten fast-talking speakers is well-respected, having given talks that garnered 20 to 50 million views on TED.com, can we finally put the “slow down” myth to rest?

Update: If you’d like to learn more about this research, visit Pocket Conference to hear Nick talk about it.

† The current #6 talk, by James Veitch, was excluded (and replaced by Dan Pink at #11) because it relies heavily on giving the audience time to read his visuals.

‡ Study Methodology: We used word count in Microsoft Word to count words after deleting unspoken words in the transcript (such as “(Applause)” and “(Laughter)”) and converting numerals to the corresponding spoken words (“25” becomes “twenty five”). And we counted time from the beginning of the first word to the end of the last, subtracting the time taken up by “(Applause)” and “(Laughter)” breaks that were explicitly called out in the transcript.








Available Now!

After more than two years of research and development, we’re proud to announce that our book, The Science of Speaking, is now available!

With chapters on nervousness, delivery, organization, visual aids, pitching, and technical communication, all based on the latest scientific research, we hope that everyone will be able to find something new in this book that will help you communicate more confidently and share your brilliant ideas with the rest of the world!


From the Lab: Direct Their Eyes

In a classic study by Alfred Yarbus, reported in his 1967 book Eye Movements and Vision (originally published in Russian in 1965), the eye movements of an observer were recorded while they viewed an image—Ilya Repin’s Unexpected Visitors (c. 1886)—seven times with different instructions.

Before we see the results of the study, let’s replicate it ourselves here.

As you complete each of the tasks below, pay attention to where you find yourself looking.

First, take a look at the painting below, and examine it however you desire (a).

Next, estimate the wealth of the family in the picture (b).

Then estimate the ages of each person in the room (c).

Now, figure out what the the family was doing before the “unexpected visitor” arrived (d).

Next, remember the clothing worn by each person (e).

Then remember the positions of the people and objects in the room (f).

And finally, estimate how long the “unexpected visitor” has been away from the family (g).

Of course, while you were completing each of these different tasks, your eyes followed different paths around the image. Below, you’ll find the eye tracks recorded by Yarbus of a participant completing each of the seven tasks you just did.


As you can see—and as you probably noticed yourself just a moment ago—depending on what someone is looking for, they’re going to process an image in different ways. Of course, this finding isn’t only true for paintings: it also applies to your visual aids.

So while you can—like most speakers—simply allow your audience’s eyes to wander around your visual aids, as in the free examination task (a) above, you may be able to do even better if you direct your audience’s attention by telling them what to look for. By doing so, you’ll make their job significantly easier, which as we’ve seen before, will lead to greater understanding. Although it sounds obvious, the easier you make it for your audience to understand you message, the better they’re going to understand it. As Yarbus’ experiment demonstrated half a century ago, directing their eyes is one easy way to do that.





From the Field: The Shoulders of Giants

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1676

This piece of advice comes from a student, Benjamin Gera.

After being rejected for several jobs, Ben received a piece of advice from one of his interviewers. When he applied this advice in his next interview, he was immediately given the job.

What was this powerful piece of advice?

Whenever you’re speaking about your successes, begin by talking about those who helped you achieve them.

As Ben notes, by talking about the giants whose shoulders you stood on, you immediately convey humility and differentiate yourself from everyone else who appears boastful. As long as you first acknowledge those who have helped you, he reports, you can pretty much boast about yourself as much as you want, while still coming across as humble. It’s the perfect solution to the dilemma of expertise that I discuss in The Science of Speaking.

Another benefit of Ben’s technique is that it sets you up to tell human stories, rather than just rattling off a dry list of accomplishments. And as we saw in a previous blog post, this can help the audience feel they know you, which will lead them to see you as even more trustworthy.

From the Lab: Play Games on Your Smartphone

After a disaster, play games on your smartphone.

That’s the takeaway from a recent study as summarized by Art Markman in Psychology Today.

In the study, researchers tracked cell phone use following a major earthquake in China in 2013. What they found was that while everyone felt a similar level of threat shortly after the event, those who spent more time using “hedonic” (i.e., pleasurable) apps on their smartphone—like games and music players—recovered more quickly than those who used them less.

While some may dismiss this strategy as simply “numbing the pain,” sometimes that’s exactly what people in pain need. And while the experience of public speaking is nowhere near that of surviving a natural disaster, it’s likely that the same recovery strategy will work. Therefore, if you find yourself feeling particularly stressed after a communication “disaster,” it may be beneficial to pull out your smartphone and play some games or listen to music until you calm down enough to debrief it more rationally.

From the Lab: Pump Up the Jam

In The Science of Speaking, I cite research showing that listening to relaxing music while preparing your speech can significantly reduce your stress. Yesterday, my wife sent me an article in Fitness magazine citing a 2015 study that demonstrates another good use of music.

According to the study, listening to powerful music—particularly pieces that are heavy in bass, like the classic fight song “We Will Rock You” by Queen—can increase our feelings of power and lead us to act more like powerful people do.

While feeling more powerful is not always the best strategy (see The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner for more on this), if you feel like more power is going to help you, this study provides an easy way to power up: pump up the jam (and while you’re at it, the bass).

In the News: Trust Your Audience

If you want your audience to trust you, show them that you trust them.

That’s the takeaway from a new article in Harvard Business Review. While the whole article is worth a read, here’s an executive summary of the science behind it:

. . . many employees say they do not feel trusted by their managers. And when employees don’t feel trusted, workplace productivity and engagement often suffer. It’s up to managers to signal trust in their employees in consistent and thoughtful ways. . . .


Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization. Employees who do feel trusted are higher performers and exert extra effort, going above and beyond role expectations. Plus, when employees feel their supervisors trust them to get key tasks done, they have greater confidence in the workplace and perform at a higher level.


In short, trust begets trust. When people are trusted, they tend to trust in return. But people must feel trusted to reciprocate trust. Managers have to do more than trust employees; they need to show it.

The rest of the article provides a clear roadmap for how leaders can signal trust and avoid signaling distrust, including sharing information, giving up (some) control, and helping your employees reach their goals. But in the end, it boils down to this one Tweetable insight: showing your audience you trust them and support their goals, they’ll be more likely to trust you and support yours.

From the Lab: Sex (Sometimes) Sells (But Not Really)

In a recent meta-analysis of studies, reported by Psychology Today, researchers investigated whether sex sells. Here are some of the essential findings:

  • In general, sex led to greater recall for ads (d = .38).
  • The effect was greater for congruent products (e.g., using sex to sell lingerie) (d = .45).
  • But it was entirely reversed for incongruent products (e.g., using sex to sell laptops) (d = -.46).
  • However, even in congruent cases, just the ads were remembered. The brands themselves were no more likely to be remembered (d = .09).
  • In general, attitudes towards the sexual ads were mostly neutral (d = -.07).
  • But this was only true when men and women were averaged together. While men had moderately positive views of sexual ads (d =.27), women had stronger negative views of them (d = -.38).
  • In terms of actually selling the product, sexual advertising had no effect (d = .01).
  • But when the sexual appeal and product were incongruent, sex actually led to decreased sales (d = -.24).

While in a formal speaking context, these specific findings are moot—using sex to sell is usually inappropriate in such contexts—there are still several important lessons we can take from this research.

First, it underscores the importance of congruence. In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly note that it’s important to make sure all aspects of your speech go together, whether it’s matching your facial expressions and tone of voice to your content, making sure your visual aids all look cohesive, or making sure your persuasive appeals are all congruent. This research intensifies all of these points by showing that incongruence can not only be ineffective, it can actually have a significant negative effect, in this case leading to lower recall and purchase intentions.

Second, beware “seductive details.” In The Science of Speaking, I review research showing that when interesting but irrelevant details are added in order to spice something up, these details can actually draw attention away from the main message, resulting in the opposite of the intended effect—in that case, learning, and in this case, sales.

Finally, it’s always important to consider your audience. Just as in this case, there were totally different effects for men and women, your appeals may have totally different effects on different audiences, and a strategy that works well for one may totally flop with another. Rather than designing general appeals that you think will work for everyone, you want them to be tailored to your audience as much as possible.

From the Lab: Consider All of Your Options (Together)

In a recent study reported by Harvard Business Review, Shankha Basu and Krishna Savani compared two different ways of making decisions: considering your options in series—examining them one by one—or considering them in parallel—examining them all at one, next to each other.

What they found was that across a variety of different kinds of decisions, “people were, on average, 22% more likely to choose the objectively best option when they viewed options together rather than one at a time.” In one experiment, “those who viewed options individually chose the best option 75% of the time, while those who viewed options together identified the best product 84% of the time.”

Unfortunately, we don’t always do this. In a survey about how people made decisions, the researchers found that despite the fact that parallel comparison is better, people only use this technique for about half of the decisions they make. In addition, when it comes to presenting decisions (on a shopping website, for example), only some presenters give their audience the chance to use it (for example, by allowing customers to compare products side-by-side).

When you’re the one presenting a decision, you can use this information to good effect for the benefit of both you and your audience (assuming that the right decision for the audience is also the right decision for you, which hopefully it is). Whenever possible, present options side-by-side, and your audience will be more likely to choose wisely.

From the Stage: The Bravery of Brotherhood

However you may feel about President Reagan, I think we can all agree we could use more of these sentiments from his 4th of July speech over fifty years ago.

. . . it’s important for us, too, to be brave; not so much the bravery of the battlefield, I mean the bravery of brotherhood.

. . . the things that unite us—America’s past of which we’re so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country—these things far outweigh what little divides us. And so tonight we reaffirm that Jew and gentile, we are one nation under God; that black and white, we are one nation indivisible; that Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans. Tonight, with heart and hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world.

My fellow Americans, we’re known around the world as a confident and a happy people. Tonight there’s much to celebrate and many blessings to be grateful for. So while it’s good to talk about serious things, it’s just as important and just as American to have some fun. Now, let’s have some fun—let the celebration begin!