Listening at 2X speed

Sriram Kishore
Product Boodham
Published in
5 min readMar 1, 2021

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I am a person who does not read many books. Like you and so many others, I rely on the ever-interesting, perennial audio-video platforms that provide me with my daily dose of intellectual feed —the likes of YouTube videos, podcasts, clubhouse chats, text-to-speech converted blogs, Medium audio blogs and what not?

I have always felt that listening is much easier for me when compared to reading for ingesting good content. Apart from the audio content that I consume through the above-mentioned channels, do you know what else do I ingest largely? educational videos on Udemy, Coursera, Khan Academy, YouTube(again — Kurzgesagt you da best!), LinkedIn learning, Shaw Academy and of course some extremely good content through Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

By now I have mentioned all the major outlets through which I and other people consume content. But all these varied and often competing platforms have one very similar feature — be it an audio distributing platform or a video distribution platform, it is the feature to skim through content at a different playback speed. In fact, as of this point, it has become such a mainstream thing that I often feel frustrated when I do not see this option in an application.

People who use this feature, mostly in the podcast world to eat up the content at a speed that is more than the actual playback speed are called ‘podfasters’. Is it just another additions to the effect of a hyper-mobilized world that moves at an unimaginable pace where everyone and everything is connected? In a nutshell — one more thing to nudge our impatience?

Well, not really. This is not new and the phenomenon of listening to stuff at a faster than usual rate has been studied extensively (the pioneer study was done in 1957)and the technical term for it is called ‘time compression’. So to re-iterate, when listeners listen to podcasts by applying the technique of ‘time compression they are called ‘podfasters’.

Intriguing isn’t it? We, humans, have the capacity to talk within ourselves at an average rate of 400 words per minute, can read internally at a rate of 300 words per minute, but when we try to bring out those words through our mouth we are stuck at more or less 150 words per minute. (This does vary from region to region but you get the ballpark). So simply put, one can comprehend 400 words per minute but can speak only 150 WPM?? What can be done to bridge the gap to increase efficiency? There are two ways to go about it — (a)Skimming (b)time-compression

Skimming in this digital world means cutting out unnecessary pauses, dramatic pauses and all that. The podcast player called Overcast does just that through its ‘smart speed’ feature and many other platforms use this algorithm to shave off these needless breaks ( and it works ridiculously well in slow podcasts, whereas does not have much to do in tightly edited podcasts like 99%invisible). When this also feels normal, the other method comes to the rescue — the time compression technique. This technique is delivered through the feature that lets you play stuff at a varied playback speed.

How useful of a feature is this?

Extremely useful and also widely used. First of all, we need to understand why this feature is a boon (and also a bane). A recent Edison research shows that Americans spend about ~15 hours each week consuming audio content (which is huge). So what happens when we consume this much content? A 2019 stat shows that 26% of users (Spotify) use the ‘time compression’ feature and this number grew from 19% (2018).

stat from Edison research

Research done by Uri Hasson, director of Princeton’s Hasson lab shows that 1.25X is kind of the sweet spot for listening content and when this speed surpasses 2X speed we lose the ability to comprehend the content well. Mainly because our minds do not work like computers. Although we can recognize words, we have to incorporate them into sentences and sentences into paragraphs to make meaning. This hypothesis is also supported by a study that states the objective performance of students who listen to recorded lectures at 1.5X speed may be worse than the ones who consume the content at regular speed. Okay, moving away from nerdy stuff, irrespective of the empirical leaning of this feature towards its benefit or otherwise, it definitely is a much sought after one.

In fact services like Netflix has introduced this feature to the public only in 2020 after multiple requests from its users over the years. However, it was not a very warm welcome from a certain set of people who felt that the feature took away the artistic sense that the director wanted to portray through their film (right?). But it certainly is helpful when it comes to rewatching favourite scenes or pacing through boring content.

Now let’s take a look at it from a complete product comparison view. As I mentioned earlier, almost all media distribution platforms have incorporated this feature now (laggards please pace yourselves) and the options provided are extremely well planned as per the content type distributed. For example, the playback speed change option is available only for podcasts and not for songs on Spotify but YouTube does not segregate it that way. Also, Spotify offers a 3.5X speed option in its mobile app but only a 3X speed option for the same show on its desktop(mac)application.

Naval show on Spotify — Android
Naval show on Spotify — Mac application

For ensuring that users get the most pleasant experience every time, Netflix sets the speed to default every time a new playback is triggered. The audiobook platform goes one step further and allows users to choose the playback speed at an incremental rate of 0.05-speed levels (1.05X, 1.10X,1.15X and so on).

I feel this is a feature that definitely helps us consume more than the normal rate, and possibly increases the knowledge accumulated for every minute spent. If I were the PM at like of Spotify/ Audible I would love to experiment by combining the findings from research on pedagogy space and human-learning space to increase the potential rate of information retention following the content consumption at a faster pace. Mainly because the usage of the audio medium to impart knowledge and tell stories predates our study-through-books mechanism. In short, we have digitised our analogue version of ancient knowledge imparting mechanism and I would like to bring in the recent research as an aid to potentially increase the feature’s utilitarian value.

What are your thoughts on this?

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