Persuasive speech: The way we, um, talk sways our listeners

May 15, 2011

Want to convince someone to do something? A new University of Michigan study has some intriguing insights drawn from how we speak.

The study, presented May 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, examines how various characteristics influence people's decisions to participate in telephone surveys. But its findings have implications for many other situations, from closing sales to swaying voters and getting stubborn spouses to see things your way.

"Interviewers who spoke moderately fast, at a rate of about 3.5 words per second, were much more successful at getting to agree than either interviewers who talked very fast or very slowly," said Jose Benki, a research investigator at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

For the study, Benki and colleagues used recordings of 1,380 introductory calls made by 100 male and female telephone interviewers at the U-M ISR. They analyzed the interviewers' speech rates, , and pitch, and correlated those variables with their success in convincing people to participate in the survey.

Since people who talk really fast are seen as, well, fast-talkers out to pull the wool over our eyes, and people who talk really slow are seen as not too bright or overly pedantic, the finding about speech rates makes sense. But another finding from the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was counterintuitive.

"We assumed that interviewers who sounded animated and lively, with a lot of variation in the pitch of their voices, would be more successful," said Benki, a speech scientist with a special interest in psycholinguistics, the psychology of language.

"But in fact we found only a marginal effect of variation in pitch by interviewers on success rates. It could be that variation in pitch could be helpful for some interviewers but for others, too much pitch variation sounds artificial, like people are trying too hard. So it backfires and puts people off."

Pitch, the highness or lowness of a voice, is a highly gendered quality of speech, influenced largely by body size and the corresponding size of the larynx, or voice box, Benki says. Typically, males have low-pitched voices and females high-pitched voices. Stereotypically, think James Earl Jones and Julia Child.

Benki and colleagues Jessica Broome, Frederick Conrad, Robert Groves and Frauke Kreuter also examined whether pitch influenced survey participation decisions differently for male compared to female interviewers.

They found that males with higher-pitched voices had worse success than their deep-voiced colleagues. But they did not find any clear-cut evidence that mattered for female interviewers.

The last speech characteristic the researchers examined for the study was the use of pauses. Here they found that interviewers who engaged in frequent short pauses were more successful than those who were perfectly fluent.

"When people are speaking, they naturally pause about 4 or 5 times a minute," Benki said. "These pauses might be silent, or filled, but that rate seems to sound the most natural in this context. If interviewers made no pauses at all, they had the lowest success rates getting people to agree to do the survey. We think that's because they sound too scripted.

"People who pause too much are seen as disfluent. But it was interesting that even the most disfluent interviewers had higher success rates than those who were perfectly fluent."

Benki and colleagues plan to continue their analyses, comparing the speech of the most and least successful interviewers to see how the content of conversations, as well as measures of speech quality, is related to their success rates.

Explore further: Texas OKs most new history textbooks amid outcry

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Hiring practices influenced by beauty

Dec 06, 2007

A new study published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences finds that the attractiveness of interviewees can significantly bias outcome in hiring practices, showing a clear distinction between the attractive and ...

Teacher talk strains voices, especially for women

Oct 26, 2009

Teachers tend to spend more time speaking than most professionals, putting them at a greater risk for hurting their voices -- they're 32 times more likely to experience voice problems, according to one study. And unlike singers ...

Speech Synthesizer Helps Movie Critic

Jun 15, 2010

The voices you hear on message services are often created artificially by fitting together short audio snippets from a large library of vocalized words and sounds. Scientists are now moving beyond the older ...

Can you predict your mate will cheat by their voice?

Mar 04, 2011

When choosing a partner, women believe the lower the man's voice, the more likely he's going to cheat. Conversely, men think a woman with a higher voice is more likely to be unfaithful, researchers have found.

An average voice is beautiful, say scientists

Jan 25, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Nobody wants to be average, so we are told, but scientists at the University of Glasgow have found that when it comes to vocal attractiveness, sounding average attracts more admirers.

Adults with dyslexia have problems with non-speech sounds too

Jun 01, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Dyslexia is usually associated with persistent reading, spelling, and sometimes speech difficulties that are hard to overcome. One theory proposed to explain the condition is that people with dyslexia suffer ...

Recommended for you

Study identifies why re-educating torturers may not work

Nov 21, 2014

Many human rights educators assume – incorrectly, as it turns out – that police and military officers in India who support the torture of suspects do so because they are either immoral or ignorant. This ...

Research helps raise awareness of human trafficking

Nov 21, 2014

Human trafficking –– or the control, ownership and sale of another human being for monetary gain –– was a common occurrence centuries ago, but many believe it doesn't exist in this day and age and not in this country.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.