Speech Patterns Important for PersuasionA new study finds that our rate of speech — how fast or slow a person talks — appears to be a significant factor for convincing people to do things.

University of Michigan researchers examined how speech patterns influence people’s decisions to participate in telephone surveys.

“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 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 university.

The researchers looked at a variety of factors — speech rates, fluency, and pitch –and analyzed which variables were associated with successfully convincing people to participate in the survey.

The findings are generally consistent with perceptions that people who talk really fast are viewed as insincere and not trustworthy and that people who talk really slow are seen as not too bright.

However, one finding from the study is 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.

“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. In recogntion of this difference, researchers studied if pitch influenced survey participation 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.”

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

Source: University of Michigan