How Vocal Tones Impact Persuasion

Can a person’s vocal tones impact persuasion? We asked Xin (Shane) Wang, Shijie Lu, Xi Li, Mansur Khamitov, and Neil Bendle, authors of a new Journal of Consumer Research article examining this question. Here is what they shared with us:

Persuasion success is often related to hard-to-measure characteristics, such as the way the persuader speaks. The profusion of online interactions provides avenues to study this important consumer-relevant phenomenon, but also changes the process. For example, people who make persuasion attempts online cannot be assessed through handshakes or eye contact. Yet, technology still gives the targets of persuasion (i.e., “receivers”) cues that enable intuitive assessment. In particular, online videos allow receivers to hear the persuader’s vocal tones. These provide cues that receivers can use to determine their response to the persuasion attempt.

Against this background, the starting point for our research was to suggest that receivers use cues to determine whether the persuaders are likely to deliver what they promise. Specifically, we set out to test whether persuaders’ vocal tones, measured by a novel voice analysis software system, affect receivers’ decisions to fund a request because vocal tones are thought to give insight into a persuader’s competence. That is, we were curious about how a speaker’s vocal tone persuades. Our core idea was that speakers who sound more focused would be perceived as more competent, and thus more persuasive. Additionally, our prediction was that speakers who come across more stressed would be perceived as less competent, and therefore less persuasive. Last but not least, we anticipated that speakers who seemed excessively emotional would be perceived as less competent, and hence less persuasive.

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To examine how vocal tones impact persuasion in an online appeal, our research measured persuaders’ vocal tones in crowdfunding video pitches using novel audio mining technology. We reasoned that connecting vocal tone dimensions with real-world funding outcomes has a potential to offer insight into the impact of vocal tones on receivers’ actions. We first tested our predictions with large-scale empirical studies using the Kickstarter music and technology categories. In these categories projects often have videos posted online with the aim of securing relatively small amounts of funding from numerous non-expert investors. As a major online crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter straddles the commercial and non-commercial worlds, and primarily caters to entrepreneurs/artists seeking support for their ideas. Importantly, the platform is not based on donations: the entrepreneurs must persuade funders that they will deliver on the proposed project. We followed our secondary data analyses with controlled experiments that allowed us to further dive deep into the persuader’s perceived competence explaining the receiver’s response to the vocal tones. Thus, our research also speaks to the value of combining secondary data and experiments when investigating persuasion.

The implications of our findings are as follows. Entrepreneurs, and other funding seekers, need to watch their vocal tones and carefully consider the signals they send beyond their words. A successful persuasion attempt is most likely to result from vocal tones denoting (1) focus, (2) low stress, and (3) stable emotions. These three tone dimensions allow listeners to draw conclusions about an entrepreneur’s competence. So sound focused, stable, and not too stressed or extremely emotional to help demonstrate your competence. Of course, this may require extensive practice for those who are not natural communicators. These results identify key indicators of persuasion attempt success and suggest a greater role for audio mining in consumer research. Fascinating new methods can quantify key elements of the human voice, promising benefits for numerous fields. Consumer research can take the lead in this area—gaining insight into a speaker’s thoughts, identifying presenters’ styles, and assessing persuasion effectiveness. We strongly feel that further research on using and validating various audio mining techniques would be extremely valuable.

Read the full paper:

Xin (Shane) Wang, Shijie Lu, Xi Li, Mansur Khamitov, Neil Bendle

Journal of Consumer Research, ucab012,