If you’ve been exposed to popular culture in the past couple of decades, you’ve probably seen the stereotype of the fast-talking salesman (it’s almost always a man, for some reason) who manages to sell people things they don’t want by talking so fast that the overwhelmed customers give in.
It’s an annoying stereotype – and what’s even more annoying is that the technique works – although not always, as you’ll see.
Some early research compared the persuasiveness of various messages when the same words were spoken slowly (at an average of 102 words per minute) or rapidly (195 words per minute). The researchers found that not only were faster speakers more persuasive, they were perceived to be more intelligent and more objective than slower speakers making the same arguments.
Simple, right? Nope. Further research showed that the relationship between fast talking and persuasiveness was more complicated than that.
Steve Smith and David Shaffer compared the effectiveness of arguments given at slow, moderate and fast speeds, but they also varied the appeal of the arguments to their listeners. The study participants were university students, and some heard an argument in favour of lowering the legal drinking age while others heard an argument in favour of maintaining the current legal age of 21. (As you might guess, the students tended to have firm views on this subject.)
What they discovered was that when they were trying to sell an unpopular message (in this case, keeping the drinking age higher), listeners were most persuaded by fast talkers, just like in the earlier experiments. (Intermediate-speed talkers were less persuasive, while slow speakers were the least persuasive.) However, when they were pushing a message the listeners already agreed with, slow speakers were most persuasive.
What’s going on? It appears that when we hear a fast message, we don’t have time to evaluate it and think up reasons we agree or disagree with it. This benefits the speaker with an unpopular message, since fast talking prevents the audience from coming up with counterarguments. But it’s a disadvantage to the speaker with a popular message, since her audience doesn’t have time to think about all the reasons they agree – which would otherwise cement their opinion even further.
Applying these findings means talking fast when selling an unpopular message, which may work but feels a little slimy, since it basically amounts to persuading people by distracting them from the downside of your argument. I’ll leave it to your consciences whether you want to take that route. However, I do recommend talking more slowly than usual when you’re preaching to the converted: give them time to think about how sensible your arguments are.
And. Since. I. Know. We’re. All. Friends. Here. I’ll. Speak. Very. Slowly. While. Saying. That. This. Actually. Is. My. 100th. Blog. Post. And. Isn’t. That. Awesome? I. Think. So. Too.
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