Effective Speech Delivery: Rate, Pitch, and Pauses

Why some politicians and other public speakers seem much more effective even when saying almost the same thing as their less inspiring colleagues? Effective speaking, for one, usually avoids the powerless language. Yet, there is much more to it than just powerful language. There are probably hundreds of possible attributes of effective speaking, and it will take a long time for researchers to sort it out. Although the existing research is far from the definitive, there are some basic recommendations for effective speech delivery.

Speech Rate: Fast speakers vs Slow speakers

Some early research studies suggest that fast speakers are more effective than slow ones (Miller et al 1976). One reason is that fast speakers appear to know their subject very well, and this in turn makes them appear more credible. Also, fast and moderately fast speakers are usually perceived as more intelligent and confident than slow speakers. One earlier review of research on persuasiveness of telemarketer’s voice suggests that moderately fast pace is the most effective (Ketrow 1990). A more recent study of telemarketer’s voice likewise suggests that a moderately comfy pace – 3.5 words per second – is the most persuasive.

Other research on speech rate suggests a more nuanced view. In some situations, slow speakers may outstrip their fast-talking counterparts by appearing more sensitive and compassionate. Also, slow speakers are more persuasive when the message is pro-attitudinal: if your audience likes the underlying idea of your message, then slow speech rate is more persuasive. (Smith & Shaffer 1991). On the other hand, fast speech rate is more effective if your message counter-attitudinal. Thus, speak faster than normal if you expect your audience will resist your underlying idea. This should work especially well when your audience is moderately involved; if it is highly involved, fast speech rate is unlikely to have this persuasive effect (Smith & Shaffer 1996).

Pitch

Vocal pitch (how high or low the voice sounds) is an important vocal attribute. In general, lower pitch voices are associated with honesty, attractiveness, and other positive traits.

Higher pitch voices, on the other hand, are associated with femininity and deception. We are probably unconsciously aware that when people lie they are more psychologically aroused and thus tend to stress their vocal features; this in turn increases their vocal pitch. And various experiments confirm this: when people are asked to lie, their vocal pitch increases. As with any other speech attribute, higher pitch may be preferable in some situations; for example, men with higher voices are perceived as more agreeable than men with lower voices.

Overall, however, lower voice seems to have natural advantages – natural at least from evolutionary perspective: lower pitch indicates more testosterone and higher testosterone signals more dominance and power. For example, one study found that among Tanzanian hunter-gatherers known as Hadza, males with lower voices had on average two more children than squeaky speakers.  Another study has found that women remember objects better when they are introduced by deep male voices.

good advice thus, not only for men but also for women, is to speak in the lower range of your vocal pitch when you need to sound credible, especially when speaking about important issues. Of course, it is equally important, if not more important, to sound natural and not to strain your voice.

Pauses

Cicero said that “silence is one of the great arts of conversation”. And it seems that persuasive power of pauses is underrated. At least according to one study, pauses are even more important than fluency.

Other Attributes

Speech rate, pitch, and pauses are of course not the only ones that matter. Among others, ability to speak the standard dialect of your audience, loud enough, with clear diction, without strain, jitter or nasality, are also important. For the most part, however, we can get 80 percent of persuasion payoff by tweaking the crucial 20 percent – speech rate, pitch, pauses, and loudness.

Summary

  • Speech is more likely to sway if it is moderately fast. The existing research suggests that fast speakers outperform slow speakers.
  • Because higher vocal pitch is negatively associated with deception (but sometimes positively associated with agreeableness), it is best to speak in the lower range of one’s vocal pitch, especially when credibility is important. It is equally important, however, to sound natural and not to strain your voice.
  • Loudness of your voice is also important. Louder is better (within limits of course).
  • One of best ways to score easy points is to use pauses to emphasize important points. It doesn’t come natural to most of us, so take time to make it your habit.

Sources

  • Miller, N., Maruyama, G., Beaber, R. J., & Valone, K. (1976). Speed of speech and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 615–624.
  • Ketrow S.M.(1990), Attributes of a telemarketer’s voice and persuasiveness: A review and synthesis of the literature, Journal of Direct Marketing, 4: 7-21
  • Smith S. M., and Shaffer D. R. (1991). Celerity and Cajolery: Rapid Speech May Promote or Inhibit Persuasion through its Impact on Message Elaboration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17: 663-669
  • Smith S. M., and Shaffer D. R. (1996). Speed of Speech and Persuasion: Evidence for Multiple Effects. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21: 1051-1060