How You Speak Is Just As Important As What You Say


So much about our relationships is dependent on communication. And more and more research is showing that how we say something can be just as important as what we say. Two people can recite the same set of words, but their volume, tone, pitch, and pace of speaking can completely alter the message that is being conveyed.

Take for example the words, “I love you.” People repeat these 3 simple words all of the time in different social settings. And how they say it dramatically changes what the listener perceives. In one case, saying “I love you” in a serious tone can be a sign of intimacy and attachment. In another case, saying “I love you” in a joking or playful tone may just be a sign of friendship. The words are the same, but how we say it and the context in which we say it makes a load of difference. Picking up on these cues is incredibly important in deciphering what someone is trying to say. And being able to correctly apply these cues in our own speech is equally important in conveying a clear message to others.

A recent study by psychology researcher Jose Benki at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) used recordings of over 1,380 introductory phone calls to see what variables in people’s speech correlated with their success in convincing people to participate in a survey. Some of what they found included:

  • Interviewers who spoke moderately fast, at a rate of about 3.5 words per second, were much more successful than those who talked too fast or too slow. Researches theorized that fast-talkers may be seen as overly aggressive (or as if they are trying to “pull the wool over our eyes”), while slow-talkers may be seen as not too bright or overly pedantic.
  • Animated speech and pitch variation were also found to be most effective when an appropriate balance was achieved. Those who varied their pitch too much were seen as artificial or putting on an act, while those who don’t vary their pitch at all (“monotone”) can quickly lose the listener’s attention.
  • Males with higher pitched voices tend to have less success than males with lower pitched voices. Variation among females didn’t seem to have an effect.
  • Interviewers who engaged in short pauses were found to be more successful than those who spoke fluently. According to research, people prefer speech with about 4 to 5 pauses a minute.

Of course, there are a lot of variables that also affect our speech. It often depends on what exactly is trying to be communicated. For example, faster paced speaking may be more effective when someone is trying to signal that they are in a rush (“Can I please cut the line, I have to pick up my child at school in less than 10 minutes!)

The researchers also didn’t seem to look into differences in volume. Intuitively, someone who speaks really softly may be perceived as more submissive or unsure rather than those who speak louder and more assertively.

(then again, you also have people like Mike Tyson who have big egos and self-confidence, but he still speaks very, very softly).

Speech cues definitely don’t convey everything about a person or what they are trying to say, but the point is that they play a major role. People can often read into our intentions, thoughts, and feelings depending on how we say something. When our speech isn’t congruent, people may be quick to judge you as untrustworthy or manipulative. It is important to not only be expressive, but also to sound genuine whenever you talk.

Tips for improving how you speak:

  • Record yourself reading an article in a newspaper, then re-listen to it.
  • Record yourself telling a story from memory, then re-listen to it.
  • Give a small speech in front of a group of friends or family. Ask them to give healthy criticism.
  • Practice other forms of communication: joke-telling, pitching a business idea, sharing a personal story, recapping the news, participating in an interview, presenting scientific research, etc.
  • Try to be more mindful of your speech on a daily basis. Choose your words more carefully, try to also be more aware of your pitch, volume, tone, and pace of voice.
  • Remember, consistent and conscious practice can embed habits that become second-nature.
  • Before an interview, practice some mock interviews with friends, family, or coworkers.
  • Before giving a public speech, practice it out-loud several times and make sure everything flows the way you want.

Try these out for yourself and see how they improve the way you speak.

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