New proof about “sounding smart”

Every time a lawyer communications, that lawyer must choose not only what to say but how to say it—in person, phone, e-mail, or something else.

Speaking and listening obviously take longer and may seem inefficient. Writing (such as e-mail) can reach a group of people instantly and allow them to access the information at a convenient time, also creating a record all parties can use and refer to later.

Courtesy Flickr/Horia Varlan/CC by 2.0
Courtesy Flickr/Horia Varlan/CC by 2.0

But e-mail just isn’t as accurate at conveying meaning.* Anyone who has had an e-mail misunderstanding has experienced what the academic research shows:

Because of the paralinguistic cues in voice, such as intonation, cadence, and amplitude, observers who hear communicators guess their actual thoughts and feelings more accurately than observers who read the exact same words in text.

This is just the background in a new study conducted by Professor Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley at the Booth School of Business (University of Chicago) (sub req’d for link). There’s actually another surprising disadvantage of writing, compared with speaking the same material to a listener.

In that study, MBA students prepared pitches on why they should be hired, and then delivered them either orally or in writing. The results were pronounced:

[E]valuators rated a candidate as more competent, thoughtful, and intelligent when they heard a pitch rather than read it and, as a result, had a more favorable impression of the candidate and were more interested in hiring the candidate.

Why is this? It has to do with cues provided by the voice, and heard by the listener—cues that are lacking in writing. The study summed up the effect:

The words that come out of a person’s mouth convey the presence of a thoughtful mind more clearly than the words typed by a person’s hands—even when those words are identical. Across five experiments, evaluators who listened to job pitches were consistently more interested in hiring the candidates than were evaluators who read identical pitches. A person’s voice communicates not only the content of his or her thinking, but also the humanlike capacity for thinking.

The effect persisted whether the written material was prepared for purposes of reading or speaking. It persisted in one form or another for “evaluators” drawn from a general audience at a Chicago museum as well as from recruiters at Fortune 500 companies. The study also asked trained actors to deliver the pitches in another sub-set of the study to glean whether professional voice skills were the deciding factor. They weren’t.

In an article on the study—”The Mouth Is Mightier than the Pen”—the New York Times pointed out that study authors did not control for the quality of the writing itself. Study author Dr. Epley told the Times he assumed the MBA students were “better-than-average” writers, given that they were enrolled at a top business school. But the study’s findings turned out to be greatly surprising to the students themselves: responses to a survey question showed they did not expect their spoken pitches to be so much more powerful in conveying intellect.

The study does not indicate it would be “impossible for a talented writer to overcome the limitations of text alone.” Rather, the study participants did not predict or expect that voice would provide such an advantage, and thus in their written pitches did not spontaneously try to overcome any deficit from that communication medium.

The study has a number of implications, for lawyers and anyone who conducts business in a variety of media—or anyone who cares about making an impression about their intellect:

[T]ext-based communications may make individuals sound less intelligent and employable than when the same information is communicated orally. The findings imply that old-fashioned phone conversations or in-person visits may be more effective when trying to impress a prospective employer or, perhaps, close a deal.

* Among e-mail’s other well-documented disadvantages such as creating a sort of tyranny of distraction.

One thought on “New proof about “sounding smart”

  1. Again, terrific research which I will share with my colleagues Jennifer.
    As a business speech and communication coach, here are some additional thoughts raised by the article:
    1. Yes, when it comes to an evaluative or very important meeting, in person communication always tops the list. However, the trend in corporations is to reduce in person meetings, which has both positive and negative results.
    2. Since the first approach to a position is often in writing, the candidate might make the initial email as reader friendly as possible, or perhaps we should move in the direction of sending along an initial video clip for our first contact!
    3. We all know that people differ in their communication savvy and ability. We coaches work with folks who want to be less shy, more approachable, more precise and polished, more articulate, reduced distracting behaviors,enhance personal style , increase organization and fluency, etc. So even though the opportunity for an in person meeting enhances your chances, you do also need to think about the quality of communication effectiveness, because the next person on deck may bowl them over!

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