By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.
What is the most appropriate pace of speech? A common belief among trial attorneys is that it is important to slow down in opening statement and closing argument, particularly when the issues in the case are complex and/or confusing. This belief makes sense since most of us have long been taught to slow down when someone is having difficulty understanding what we are saying. In fact, the term “fast-talker” has its own derogatory meaning, suggestive of a slick salesperson who is willing to say whatever is necessary to complete the sale. However, research in psychology and persuasion suggests this common belief may actually be misguided in some respects.
In fact, studies have long shown that faster rates of speech translate to greater credibility for the speaker. For example, a 1976 study found that 195 words per minute, which is a very fast pace for conversation, was perceived by listeners as most credible, compared to a slower, more common conversational rate of 100 words per minute. Other studies have since replicated this finding.
Perhaps even more interesting, a study in the 1990s found that faster rates of speech are particularly effective when the speaker is trying to persuade an audience that is generally predisposed to disagree with the speaker. However, this study found that, when preaching to the choir (i.e. people who already believe what you are saying), slower rates of speech are more effective.
Some have speculated that faster rates of speech make it difficult for listeners to detect the flaws in the speaker’s arguments. Others have suggested faster rates of speech enhance the credibility of the speaker by creating the impression that he or she is an expert in the subject area. One possibility that has not been raised in the research is that slower rates of speech are simply boring, which means the audience is less engaged. Regardless, research suggests there is no need to slow down as you present at trial, though it is important to be considerate of the court reporter.