Friday, 20 May 2011

“Fast talkers, “Smooth talking” or “Disfluent speaking?” Which should salespeople be on the phone? - Latest findings from the University Of Michigan

The Council of the London Borough of Westminster has recently unveiled a green plaque commemorating the Harley Street consulting room where Lionel Logue practiced his vocal coaching. No 146 Harley Street

The movie of the King’s Speech which won four academy awards starring Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush playing Logue has now been released on video in the UK.

The longer title of the film is revealing –
“How one man saved the British Monarchy “which if a little overblown does put across the point of the importance and power that a voice can convey.

(scroll down for free survey summary.)

Logue not only coached the King who suffered from severe stammering when speaking in public to large crowds but also in the monarch’s radio broadcasts.

Radio broadcasting is more akin to speaking to customers on the phone or speaking to clients via audio conferencing which sales people are increasingly having to do.

The power and importance of the voice is ever important to salespeople.

Recent research undertaken by José Benki at the University of Michigan has produced some very interesting findings which has implications for all in sales who use the phone in their work to gain interviews and appointments where they have to persuade the respondent to accept an interview.
José has kindly given me permission to cite his findings in this blog.

The research at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (U-M ISR). examines how various speech characteristics influence people's decisions to participate in telephone surveys.

But its findings have implications perhaps for many other situations, from sales research, appointment gaining through to closing the sales and on-going account development.

SPEECH RATE on the phone

"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,"

José Benki and his team used recordings of 1,380 introductory calls made by 100 male and female telephone interviewers at the U-M ISR.

They analysed the interviewers' speech rates, fluency, and pitch, and correlated those variables with their success in convincing people to participate in the survey.
Often people who talk really fast are seen as “fast talker”, and people who talk really slowly are seen as not too overly pedantic or possibly rather dim, the finding about speech rates rings true.

But another finding from the study was somewhat counter intuitive and surprising.
The research group assumed that interviewers who sounded animated and lively, with a lot of variation in the pitch of their voices, would be more successful
But they 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 salespeople who are trying too hard. So such backfires and puts people off."

The Importance of VOICE PITCH

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.

Typically, men have low-pitched voices and women high-pitched voices. Think of the voiced characters of Orson Wells and Rory O’Shea the voices of the Carlsberg lager Advertisements versus Lucille Smith, the voice of Smurfette from the Smurfs or Mae Questel of cartoon character -Betty Boop ( "Boop-boop-a-doop".)

The MU research group also examined whether pitch influenced survey participation decisions differently for male compared to female interviewers.

They found that men interviewers in the study 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 the female interviewers.

PAUSING on the phone

The researchers examined 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.
José Benki points out "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."

José Benki and the team at MU 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.

In correspondence that I have had with Jose Benki this week I asked him some questions on his study

José Benki ( JB) explained that the Michigan University group pretty much focused on the “survey recruitment” context, although they are obviously informed by other disciplines that study speech and persuasion.


What part do 'first impressions' have on persuasiveness on a call ? Are pitch, speech rate, fluency( or disfluency) more critical at different stages of the phone call to the recipient or are these consistently important throughout the call ?

JB: The findings we report are based on the first 13 conversational turns of agrees and refusals, precisely because refusals are shorter, lasting about 13 turns, and the agrees change in nature pretty quickly to procedural type interactions.

The trends are actually similar when averaging over the entire contact than early turns but some are stronger, such as pause frequency (more pausing at the ends of agree contacts). You raise an important point that we are aware of and are planning on pursuing in more detail in our corpus.

HA: What bearing does the length ( duration) of the call have on persuasiveness?

JB: Since the potential respondents are in control of the duration of the call for the most part, we have a confound in our data in that agrees last longer than refusals (agrees go on to a formal interview).

HA: Does the quality of the sound reproduction of the telephone microphone and/or receivers telephone speaker have any bearing on persuasiveness ?

JB: We were not able to look at quality of sound as an experimental or observational variable. What we did find was that the agree contacts with male interviewers had a mean interviewer pitch 14 Hz lower than the corresponding mean in refusals. For contacts with female interviewers, the effect was about half as large in Hz, which is about 1/4 as large when converting to a perceptual scale, perhaps negligible.

The paper on this research from the University of Michigan is to be written up shortly. There is a fun podcast link for the study.

Click for free executive summary of the Buyers Views of salespeople research study

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