A Lousy Speaker


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As a business executive, I think most of us have been requested or invited to speak publicly, no matter it’s for a client brief, training, presentation, seminar or conference.

Assuming if you’re invited to deliver a 45-minute public speech, if you were a great speaker, in order to maximize the effectiveness of your speech, should you speak longer or shorter than the required time? I guess most of you will say ‘shorter’. Right? How about if you were a lousy speaker–speak even ‘shorter’? Then no matter you were a great speaker or a lousy speaker, you should always speak shorter than the required time? No, you shouldn’t. If you were a lousy speaker, the better move is: speak as longest as you could.

Let me explain why. Noble prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman pointed out people could remember only two things during an experience process: how we feel at the peak (no matter whether the ultimate experience was good or bad) and at the end. We remember only the peak and the end. And, whether we feel satisfy or not, is not solely the experience, but is also affected by expectation. Satisfaction = Experience – Expectation. That’s why although we deliver better and better experiences to our customers, it doesn’t mean they’re more satisfied as their expectations are being raised as well.

Now, I will illustrate my idea by mapping the emotional feelings of audience from the beginning till the end of a speech in natural time sequence. I call it Emotion Curve.

The Effective Memories
In the case if I were a great speaker, the experience of audience is rising (Emotion Curve in Blue: Great Speaker) as my speech starts and goes on. However, no matter how great you’re as a speaker, the emotional feeling will start to decline, that means they won’t feel as pleasurable as before at some point–as the expectation of audience is being raised, they will expect a better joke or better content, even though you could maintain the same high level of speech quality. Thus the best move is to finish shorter than expected, for example, in 30-minute, then the effectiveness of the speech is maximized (as the peak and end generate the strongest positive emotional feeling). The longer the speech, the weaker the impact it will be.

In the case if I were a lousy speaker, the experience of audience is decreasing (Emotion Curve in Red: Lousy Speaker) since my speech starts. However, your audience are being trapped in the room (assuming they can’t leave), they probably think “Oh that’s my destiny!“, and their expectations are being lowered, so the same level of negative experience would be felt less painful. The best move is to speak as longest as you could, say 60-minute or more, in order to minimize the negative peak and end. If you end up in only 30-minute, what you will deposit in the audience’s memories: “Oh, this’s the most lousiest speech than I’ve ever heard!“–don’t try it.


  1. Sampson

    Kahneman along with Arielly and others did most of the original research that resulted in the Peak-End rule in the early-1990s. Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for this and other work in Evolutionary Economics.

    Kahneman actually suggested three factors involved in the evaluation, the peak emotional part of the experience, the trend and the ending. This has been reduced to the Peak-End rule in common discussion. A fourth factor, the duration of the experience was found not have have an effect unless the trend was downwards in which case it did. Think of standing in a slow moving queue. You only notice the time you have spent in the queue once it exceeds a certain threshold and you begin to think you will never get served. People often decide to leave the queue at this point.

    There has been much research since Kahneman’s original research looking at factors that modify the three (four) factors and at other factors that also influence the perception of the experience such as experiences with multiple-episodes, highest vs. lowest peak, experience complexity, etc. There have also been a few that look at Kahneman’s research in a business setting, for example, Peter Verhoef’s study on telephone customer service in financial services.

    From the perspective of Kahneman’s peak-trend-end rule, for public speakers, the ideal is to start slowly but surely and then build up to a peak with a great ending. Not to rise to a peak and then decline before ending. If you are a great speaker, all well and good. But if you are a poor speaker, continuiing the agony when the option to just get up and leave is available is a misguided application of Kahneman’s original research (which was on patients receiving painful medical examinations in a research setting). It is also irresponsible to continue speaking in the hope of a better ending, when speakers have carefully timed slots within a larger conference. Poor speakers should either get some public speaking training or shouldn’t speak in public at all.

    Graham Hill

  2. I do agree with the comment from Graham. As a PhD candidate, I apply psychological theories in business setting such as pricing products. I have applied peak-end rule in a pricing context, hypothesizing that people will recall the lowest price and the last price they have paid for a product which subsequently affects their decision to repeat the purchase.
    With this introduction, I am afraid that the point on Lousy Speakers is a misunderstanding of the peak-end rule. It should be noted that people have different “expectations”. Expecting to hear a quality talk is different from expecting to finish on time. When a speaker goes beyond the slotted time, s/he makes audience “unhappy” in another direction.

    On the other hand, peak-end rule does not imply that a great speaker should finish sooner! It says the speaker should plan for a peak (which comes by putting forward a surprising example, a sharp question, recalling a very pleasant or sad story, …) and then try to end nicely.

  3. Interesting posting, but this hypothetical scenario would only work if the great speakers also spoke for 90 minutes+… Thinking about that, I should turn down all 90 minutes sessions!

  4. Graham,

    The conversation is interesting. I’d spare some time to think and digest your insights.

    Sampson Lee


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