Friday, August 6, 2010

Speaking science: Speaker speed limits

Over on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, Meg Mobley is wondering: “Does anyone else notice gender differences in speaking speed?”

Does anyone else notice gender differences in speaking speed? I'm a scientist and I notice that men (older men in particular, but many younger men as well) tend to speak very slowly and deliberately, almost to the point of pausing after every thought…Meanwhile, female speakers smoke along, giving a notetaker fingercramps...I am young and female, and talk fast, partly out of nerves but partly because I have a lot to say!
It’s a great question, but unfortunately the science is a little mixed on the subject. Although some researchers have found that women and men speak at different rates, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman notes that most studies show only a small, often statistically insignificant difference between men and women’s speaking speed. We’re talking two to three extra words per minute--which doesn’t sound like a huge gender gap. And it’s often the men who speak slightly faster.

Just like different roads call for different speed limits, different speaking situations call for different speech speeds. Friendly chatter can zip along at 300-400 words per minute. But if you’re speaking in a formal setting, the ideal rate for your audience is more like 140-160 words per minute. That’s the rate that seems to be the best for listening comprehension—it’s also the speed of most audio books.

Depending on your audience, you might even want to set your cruise control a little slower. Young children and older people understand more when speech rates slow down to about 120 words per minute.

But a speaker might have a lead foot when it comes to reading her talk, and exceed the listening speed limit. When newscasters read from their teleprompters, they sometimes reach speeds of 210 words or more per minute. It’s something to watch out for if you tend to speak from a prepared text.

If high speeds are causing your ideas to snarl up like bad traffic in your listeners’ heads, you can use a variety of “road signs” to vary your speed wisely and well. Nerves can make a speaker speed up.  But if you find yourself racing to fit in everything you have to say, it might be that you’re saying too much. Over at the Six Minutes blog, Andrew Dlugan has a video critique that gets to the heart of this problem. Be ruthless in editing your talk, Dlugan says, so that your audience can absorb your main message without succumbing to information overload.

And if you had to leave a favorite anecdote or fact by the side of the road? You can always cover more ground with a question-and-answer session. A Q-and-A is a great way to sound smart and further connect with your audience--and that’s safe at any speed.

Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this new report in our "Speaking Science" series on the research behind your questions on public speaking.