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Fast talker? speed of speech may affect your persuasiveness

May 15, 2011
Courtesy of the University of Michigan
and World Science staff

Want to con­vince some­one to do some­thing? A new Un­ivers­ity of Mich­i­gan study of­fers some 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 speech 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 peo­ple to agree than ei­ther in­ter­view­ers who talked very fast or very slow­ly,” said Jose Benki, a re­search in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the un­ivers­ity’s In­sti­tute for So­cial Re­search.

For the stu­dy, Benki and col­leagues used record­ings of 1,380 in­tro­duc­to­ry calls made by 100 male and female tel­e­phone in­ter­view­ers at the in­sti­tute. They an­a­lyzed the in­ter­view­ers’ speech rates, flu­en­cy, 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 surprised the re­searchers. “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 said. 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 pitch 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.


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Want to convince someone to do something? A new University of Michigan study offers 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 speech 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 people to agree than either interviewers who talked very fast or very slowly,” said Jose Benki, a research investigator at the university’s Institute for Social Research. For the study, Benki and colleagues used recordings of 1,380 introductory calls made by 100 male and female telephone interviewers at the institute. They analyzed the interviewers’ speech rates, fluency, 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 said. 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 pitch 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.