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Pitch perfect: Using human signals to convince and persuade

The art of the business plan pitch could fill volumes of b-school literature. But what if the real secret sauce had less to do with content and everything to do with delivery?

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, has conducted research around the power of unconscious forms of communication. The tools have revealed subtle patterns in how people interact, enabling Pentland and his colleagues to predict outcomes of situations ranging from job interviews to first dates to pitches for funding.

Pentland conducted a study of business plan pitches, during which “rising-star” business executives gave their presentations to venture capitalists, while Pentland and Felix Heibeck, Research Assistant at the MIT Media Lab, watched. “The skills the executives required—the ability to clearly formulate ideas, effectively communicate to a group of peers and then persuade others to pursue those ideas—are indispensable in business as well as everyday life,” said Pentland.

The researchers also used a sensitive, specially designed digital device to monitor each presentation, known as a sociometer (a device that is an adaptation of the hoarder bard, designed by the wearable computing group at the MIT Media Lab), which recorded not simplywhat each person said in their presentation, but how they said it. It measured the variability in the speech of the presenter, how active the presenter was physically, and how many back-and-forth gestures happened between the presenter and the listeners. In other words, the digital device can measure a person’s social sense.

The research revealed a big difference in results when the venture capitalists evaluated the pitches on paper rather than in person. “As it turns out, the sociometer was able to predict which business plans the executives would choose with nearly perfect accuracy,” noted Pentland.

Based on this research, Pentland and Heibeck have identified several honest signals we send when communicating. Pentland and Heibeck define honest signals as those that are processedunconsciously, or that are otherwise uncontrollable. Four important ones are:

  • Influence: which is measured by the extent to which one person causes the other person’s pattern of speaking to match their own pattern
  • Mimicry: the reflexive copying of one person by another during a conversation
  • Activity: increased activity levels normally indicate interest and excitement
  • Consistency: consistent emphasis and timing is a signal of mental focus, while greater variability may signal an openness to influence from others

“People have a second channel of communication that revolves not around words but around social relations,” said Pentland. “This social channel profoundly influences major decisions in our lives even though we are largely unaware of it. These honest signals influence critical activities such as negotiation, group decision making, and project management.”
Consider learning and using these honest signals to sway the outcomes of your endeavors.

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland is among the most-cited computational scientists in the world and a pioneer in computational social science, organizational engineering, and mobile computing. He directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program and is an advisor for the World Economic Forum, Nissan Motor Corporation, and a variety of start-up firms. Pentland teaches in MIT Sloan Executive Education’s Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler program.


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