Speech fluency refers to clear oral communication devoid of speech errors. A speaker who is able to deliver a message that features a continuous flow of information at an appropriate rate, unmarred by any of the multiple speech errors, is said to possess speech fluency, an area of communication mastery. Speech fluency is the product of mental skills, such as recall of procedural and declarative knowledge, and physical motor skills involving correct functioning and use of the vocal cords, tongue, mouth, and lips to produce speech.
Situational factors that facilitate speech fluency include an attentive audience, an absence of distraction, the speaker being able to prepare and practice the message ahead of time, and a monologue rather than a dialogue communication format where there are fewer opportunities for interruptions and no requirement to manage turn-taking. In terms of individual difference factors, some speakers are naturally more fluent than others, whereas at the opposite end of the spectrum there are those who are burdened by anxiety with regard to communication. Nearly all speakers have the ability through training and practice to become communication masters whose speech is fluent. There are treatments available to improve speakers’ speech fluency. Treatments include physical therapy, coaching, and confidence training. The goal of all treatments is to decrease errors, thereby increasing fluency.
Positive outcomes associated with speech fluency are multiple. Speech fluency is a component of behaving as a socially skilled individual. Such skilled individuals benefit by making good impressions on others, which result in tangible rewards such as attracting relational partners and achieving professional goals. Speech fluency is also beneficial for engaging in persuasion and deception, as message receivers are not as accurate in detecting deception from fluent speakers.
There are many different types of speech errors, which are most often, though not universally, a nonverbal part of speech. Among the most common types of speech errors are stuttering, audible pauses such as “uh” or “ah,” excessively long, frequent, or misplaced silent pauses, an unusually slow or accelerated speech rate, and counterfactual utterances.
Stuttering is an involuntary speech pattern marked by frequent disfluencies. Stuttering can include stammering, sound repetition, word repetition, hesitation, and elongation of sounds, usually vowels. Approximately 5 percent of children suffer from stuttering though many of them overcome the disorder such that only 1 percent of the adult population stutters, with varying degrees of severity. The cause of stuttering is unknown. There is no cure other than speech therapy techniques aimed to improve fluency.
Pauses are negative when they occur frequently, are long in duration, are audible, and occur in the middle of an idea. Such pauses direct attention to the pause itself rather than the speaker’s content. Pauses are positive when they are used for emphasis and variation. Typically, these more effective types of pauses occur infrequently, are short in duration, are silent, and occur at the end of an idea.
Speech rates outside of an acceptable range are problematic because they lead to unwanted perceptions. An unusually slow speech rate sounds like grief and depression. Furthermore, the human capacity for processing speech is approximately four times greater than the normal speech rate of between 125 and 150 words per minute, so a slow speech rate is especially problematic, as it can cause listeners to become bored due to the low demand of the task. This boredom on the part of the audience can lead to audience distraction, which is a factor that can disturb the speaker, causing additional speech errors. An unusually fast speech rate sounds like fear and anger. Even though fast speech rates within an acceptable range are associated with judgments of speaker dynamism and extroversion, they are also thought to indicate less trustworthiness and poise.
Counterfactual utterances represent a verbal type of speech error. If a speaker is intending to state accurate information, then any misstatement of fact or omission of data represents a speech error. The cause of counterfactual utterances could be due to poor recall of declarative knowledge brought on by any of the many causes of speech errors.
Some of the causes of speech errors include a heavy cognitive load, communication apprehension and social anxiety, physical deformity, Broca’s aphasia (a brain disorder that affects the user’s ability to produce fluent speech), mental illness, advancing age, message complexity, and a dialogue rather than a monologue communication format, where turn-taking is an additional communication obstacle speakers must successfully negotiate.
Negative outcomes associated with speech errors include negative judgments about the speaker on important social dimensions such as competence, social attractiveness, and trustworthiness. An abundance of speech errors is likely to lead to low ratings of speaker credibility and persuasiveness. Ultimately, these negative judgments will translate to an inability for a nonfluent speaker to accomplish social goals and achieve success relative to a fluent speaker. Speech fluency is a fundamental component of successful interpersonal, organizational, public, and mediated oral communication.
- Burgoon, J. K., Buller, D. B., & Floyd, K. F. (2001). Does participation affect deception success? A test of the interactivity principle. Human Communication Research, 27, 503–534.
- Greene, J. O. (1984). Speech preparation processes and verbal fluency. Human Communication Research, 11, 61–84.
- Greene, J. O., & Ravizza, S. M. (1995). Complexity effects on temporal characteristics of speech. Human Communication Research, 21, 390–421.
- Lay, C. H., & Burron, B. F. (1968). Perceptions of the personality of the hesitant speaker. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 26, 951–956.
- Subramanian, A., & Yairi, E. (2006). Identification of traits associated with stuttering. Communication Disorders, 39, 200–216.
- Woodall, W. G., & Burgoon, J. K. (1983). Talking fast and changing attitudes: A critique and clarification. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 8, 126–142.