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.

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