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The Paradox of the Rate of Speaking and Listening


Back in my corporate days, I remember taking a break to use the facilities (which I guess is my way to try and politely say I needed to go potty).  In the office building where I worked, the men’s room and the women’s room were side by side and between them is a large bulletin board.  Along with the obligatory OSHA and HR postings was the monthly safety announcement.  As I’m walking past the men’s room, toward the women’s room, I notice a little cartoon on the safety announcement about paying attention to where you were walking in the work place.  I kept looking at the cartoon, trying to read it as I hurried past toward the little girls’ room.  As I craned my neck to keep walking, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was headed and sure enough, I nearly ran head long into another woman coming out of the bathroom door who was also in a hurry.  Lucky for me, she was looking where she was going!  I had to laugh.  How ironic, that as I was reading the safety poster about paying attention to where I was going when I nearly ran into another person!

Life is like that sometimes.  You try to do the right thing, like reading a safety poster, but you don’t always do it safely.

I was thinking recently about other ironic situations and it occurred to me that another paradox that I struggled with has to do with the rate at which we listen and the rate at which we speak.

The Paradox of Rate of Speech and Listening

When I studied listening skills a few years back, I ran across some stats that said people can listen at a faster rate than people can speak.  So today, I sought out the go-to authority for everything in the world today, Wikipedia, to see what they had documented on the subject.  Wikipedia says that people can listen and comprehend at a rate of 300 words per minute (WPM) while the average PowerPoint presenter speaks at a rate of 100 WPM and that typically fast-talking auctioneers speak at a rate of 250 WPM (though Wikipedia is still waiting on formal citations for these stats).  The point I remember from years ago when I was studying listening skills was that it’s easy to get distracted when listening because we can listen so much faster than the person we are listening to can speak.

As someone who is often trying to cram way to much information into the time frame that’s been given me, does this give me permission to get more in if I just talk faster?

Now let’s contrast that with another idea…

I’ve also heard it said that sometimes, as a presenter, you need to slow your rate of speech and add pauses to give people a chance to process what you’ve said.  This rings true to me.  I know there have been times when I’ve heard a speaker make a statement, started pondering the point then realized she’d moved on to another point…which I’ve then totally missed!  Sometimes, I will stop her and ask to review to the earlier statement but other times, I’m not comfortable doing so.  If she’d just taken a pause, I could have digested what she was saying, and then maybe I wouldn’t have missed her next point.

So which is it?  Can listeners listen at a faster rate than most people speak?  Or do speaker need to slow down to give people time to process.

It’s both…

Life is messy.  You can’t categorize everything to fit into a nicely aligned box and make it fit.  There are times when we can speed up and get our message across and there are times when we need to slow down to let people absorb what we have to say.  But for all those fast talkers out there, here are a few places I think we need to slow down and let our audiences absorb.

Radical Departures

When we’re introducing an idea that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, then we need to give people a chance to absorb what we’re saying.  Pause long enough to give people a chance to ask these kinds of questions in their head.  “Did she say what I thought she said?”  “What?  That can’t be right!”  “Hmmm, really?  I hadn’t thought about it like that before…”  Some people will become more open to what you have to say next.  Some people will be thinking, “I don’t believe what you’re saying Speaker Girl.”  But you want to slow down and pause so that people can at least choose a side before you go on.

The “Oh My God” Moment

My husband is a prosecutor and a brilliant orator.  When he trains other prosecutors, he encourages them to look in each case for the “Oh My God” moment.  The “Oh My God” moment is the piece of evidence that when shared or when put in perspective makes the members of the jury think, “Oh My God.”

I was 23 the first time I was called to jury duty, long before my husband was ever an attorney.  The “Oh My God” moment in that experience came when the prosecutors read the alleged charges.   It went something like, “John Doe aged 21 is accused of raping Sally Smith aged 80…”  I didn’t hear anything the prosecutor said next.  He had his “Oh My God” moment right there with me in those first few words.  (I was not chosen for jury duty that day… probably because the defense attorney read the “Oh My God” expression on my naïve face.

If you are sharing information that is truly shocking and hard to hear, slow down and pause.  Give your audience time to have that “Oh My God” reaction in their own minds.

What’s This Like?

Good speakers seek to connect their message to their audiences’ circumstances and one way they do that is by asking thought provoking questions.  For instance, if I said “What are the ‘Oh My God’ moments in your speeches?” you might want to think about that question for your speeches.  In every day conversation if I asked you a question and didn’t pause long enough to let you answer, that would be considered rude.  Well, if we don’t slow down and pause long enough to let our audiences think about their answers, I think that’s not just rude, it’s ineffective.  It hurts the application of our message and it hurts the bond we are developing with an audience.  If you want people to be able to take what they’ve learned and apply it to their lives, give them time to ponder how the information you share applies to them.

Did I Get This Right?

What do you think?  Do you agree with the premise of the paradox between the rate of listening and the rate of speaking?  Do you think that presenters need to slow down and pause more?  Or do they need to speed up to match the rate at which we listen?

Share your comments below!