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Pick up the pace
On the merit of giving presentations and lectures at speeds faster than ordinary conversation
Fast talking gets a bad rap. Look up the synonyms for "fast talker", and you'll encounter words like "phony", "scammer", and "swindler". That's because we associate the phrase with someone achieving their malicious ends through deception, and saying things too quickly for another to comprehend is an obvious means of deceit.
■ And yet, in the literal sense, there's nothing wrong with a high rate of speech. The average pace of American speech is about 150 words per minute. Yet the average reading pace for non-fiction is estimated to be 238 words per minute. The gap between those two values is substantial: Assuming both methods were used to deliver the same content, reading would be 58% faster.
■ Despite this, we often choose to consume new information not by reading, but by attending lectures, seminars, and workshops -- hypothetically subjecting ourselves to a much slower pace of information transfer. Why? Besides the obvious social rewards that come from being together with others, it's often plainly easier to sit and digest information delivered by a live person than to spend the equivalent amount of time reading.
■ At least some of this difference is due to the relative cognitive loads of the two methods of delivery. Processing the written word to store it in memory takes some effort; that's why active reading techniques are recommended for people who are reading to learn.
■ An oral presentation (especially when delivered by a dynamic speaker with the help of visual aids) can substitute for some of the processing required of a lone reader. A speaker can communicate things nonverbally -- through gestures, emphasis, volume, speed, and pitch -- that reader have to infer on their own.
■ But live speakers should still consider consciously picking up the pace. The relative gap between the paces of speech and reading suggests that something is left on the table if a presenter speaks too slowly. An audience giving its undivided attention to a speaker can handle accelerated speech: at least a quarter of podcast listeners voluntarily make use of increased playback speeds. Research has shown that audiences can handle audio content delivered at 1.5x speed without excessive mental strain.
■ If the content has been thoughtfully laid out, there seems to be no good reason for a presenter not to choose a quick pace of delivery -- that is, to be a literal fast-talker. In particular, if attention has been paid to delivering the information in a logical way that scaffolds the new information upon the old, then talking at a lively rate should send the audience a nonverbal signal to pay attention and wall out distractions.
■ In addition to creating a more immersive experience for the audience, a quicker pace can help overcome a seeming paradox. For some complex matters, breaking the idea into smaller pieces and assembling them carefully can add words but decrease the total cognitive load for the learner. Getting rid of jargon and appealing to tools like metaphors can require more words but make the content easier to digest. An energetic presenter taking more words to say things in an audience-friendly way can afford to speak faster than someone droning on through a morass of jargon and excessively complicated language.
■ Some people speak quickly as a symptom of nervousness, and that is clearly counterproductive. But as long as the information is conveyed in a confident, fluid way, a faster-than-normal rate of speech may help the audience to enter a state of flow by engaging their focus. And a well-prepared instructor ought to be able to omit the filler sounds (like "um") that fill time unproductively. In a world where learning more material faster is a matter of some real consequence, perhaps fast talking has been getting less credit than it is due.