Want to Be Heard? Try Changing the Way You Talk

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We all know that frequent verbal ticks, such as “like” and “you know,” can turn listeners off. But what about the pace, pitch and fluency of your speech? Are others more likely to tune in if you’re a high-talker, for instance, or deep-voiced?

These questions matter — not least for telemarketers — according to a study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research by a team from the University of Michigan. The researchers found that telemarketers with certain vocal characteristics were far more persuasive than others.

Reviewing recordings of 1,380 introductory telephone calls made by 100 telemarketers of both genders, the researchers analyzed the speed, fluency and pitch of the speakers’ voices and then correlated that information with their success rates in convincing call recipients to participate in a survey.

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Overall, the study found, the ideal manner of speech is not too fast but not too slow, not overly animated, and punctuated with frequent, short pauses.

A speed of about 3.5 words per second was considered ideal. Slower or faster speakers weren’t as effective at getting people to listen to their pitch. That’s not surprising, the researchers said, since people who talk fast tend to be seen as not trustworthy, while those who speak too slowly are usually perceived as slow-witted or overly pedantic.

The researchers also found that animated speakers, with lots of pitch variation in their voices, would do better. Not the case. Rather, people most responded to speakers with an even-keeled voice. When it came to male speakers, the deeper the voice, the better; for female speakers, pitch seemed to matter less.

“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,” said researcher Jose Benki, a researcher at Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, who specializes in psycholinguistics, in a statement.

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Likewise, telemarketers who spoke perfectly fluently seemed to turn listeners off. Those who paused frequently as they spoke were far more effective than those who engaged in uninterrupted speech. Under normal circumstances, people typically pause about four or five times a minute; whether the pauses are silent or filled with ums or uhs, that pattern of speech sound most believable to listeners, the authors said.

“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,” said Benki. “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.”

For those of you who aren’t telemarketing for a living, the findings still apply, the researchers say — whether you’re making a sales pitch, speaking in public, motivating your team at the office or simply trying to win a fight with your spouse.

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