Speak up!

But not too much.  And then quiet back down.  Tim Herrera with a really nice piece on the importance of “paralanguage” on effective communication.  I cannot say I spend a lot of time consciously thinking about changing my tone and volume when teaching.  But I am aware that do a lot of it for emphasis and that it really matters.  Herrera:

IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY, IT’S HOW YOU SAY IT.

Believe me?

O.K., I’m sorry, that was a cheap trick. But new research suggests that when we’re trying to seem persuasive, the volume of our words — when vocalized, of course — can have an outsize impact.

Does that mean you should shout when you’re trying to seem more persuasive? No, of course not. But according to a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you can come off as more persuasive by speaking slightly louder than you normally do, and by varying the overall volume of your voice (i.e., speaking both more loudly and softly).

The effect isn’t quite as dramatic as giving you unholy levels of persuasive power. But it will make you appear more confident when you speak, which has a positive impact on your overall persuasiveness, according to the study.

“Every time we interact with someone, we’re trying to figure out how much they know about what they’re saying, how knowledgeable they are, how confident they seem,” said Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at Wharton and a co-author of the study. “We found that these cues in particular” — the ones related to speaking volume — “made speakers seem more confident, which made them more persuasive overall.”

Humans have something of a built-in anti-persuasion radar, what psychologists call reactance, Mr. Berger said. When someone tries to persuade us, we sometimes push back because we don’t want to be persuaded. We can tell from the words being used, the context and other cues that someone is trying to influence us. “An incoming appeal comes in, someone tries to persuade us, we put up our radar to knock down the projectile,” Mr. Berger said. “We turn off the ad, we hang up on the salesperson, we counterargue against what someone is saying.”

However, we tend to look at speakers who vary their volume as more confident, which translates into an increase in their persuasiveness, according to the study.

In other words: If you’re trying to persuade your roommate to do the dishes, try speaking up a bit.

The core issue here is the influence — both conscious and nonconscious — that paralanguage, or how we say things, has on our perception of others. It’s “not something most people are aware of,” Mr. Berger said.

In conversations, “we spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to say, and we spend some time thinking about what our partner is saying,” Mr. Berger said. “We allocate a lot less attention to how we’re saying what we’re saying.” But how we say things can be significant: Whether the listener recognizes changes in paralanguage, and whether the speaker intentionally changes his or her voice, the effect paralanguage has on the listener can happen regardless.

Mr. Berger also said it’s not just those voice inflections that matter in persuasion; being physically present — as opposed to, say, writing a text or sending an email — can also have an enormous impact.

At the risk of being immodest, I think the fact that I have largely internalized this approach to public speaking is one of the reasons I am a good teacher.  And, honestly, I think this pretty much goes for all good teaching and public speaking.  And, heck, interpersonal communication in general.  And, of course, that’s why when it is really important to be understood, it is worth the phone call or in-person meeting (though I do take great pride in the perfectly-worded email).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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