How you say something has economic impact

First of its kind research finds it’s not only what you say

but how you say it that matters.

“It’s not only what you say but how you say it”.

Anyone who has participated in my Make Your Mark programme already knows the power of that combo.


But in a first of a kind study, research now shows a direct link between a company’s stock market performance and a leader’s tone of voice.


And if tone can sway financial markets, you can certainly use it to your advantage to positively influence opinions and other outcomes.


Researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Reading in the UK and California in the States used algorithms to study the voices of leaders and examine how their tone impacted financial markets.


Studying the answers Federal Reserve Chairs gave, spanning eight-years of press conferences, the research finds: A more upbeat and positive tone leads to a more upbeat and positive share price!


Within their ‘Voice of Monetary Policy’ report (findings published by the National Bureau of Economic Research), the authors say,

“We find that after controlling for the Fed’s actions and the sentiment in policy text, positive tone in the voices of Fed Chairs leads to statistically significant and economically large increases in share prices. In other words, how policy messages are communicated can move the stock market.”

The researchers studied the Federal Open Market Committee’s press conferences because of the key role they play in helping others understand policy outlook and interpret economic conditions.


Computer algorithms identified whether the emotional responses speakers gave to questions were positive, negative or neutral. The researchers then tracked how markets responded, with the more positive responses showing a marked increase.


This research is further evidence that effective communication is about so much more than words and adds further credibility to two earlier yet insightful studies:


- The first study by respected social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, whose research identifies not only how quick we are to judge our leaders but that we do so based on two main characteristics: How ‘loveable’ and how ‘fearsome’ they are.

When she talks about ‘lovable’ she includes the tonal quality of ‘warmth’, something that’s certainly conveyed when someone responds in a more upbeat and positive way. There’s more in this: Harvard Business Review article ‘Connect, then lead’.


What this tells us then is that responding with an upbeat tone will likely determine how well we are immediately perceived by others.


- The second study, while published more than a decade ago, finds:

Speakers can produce attitude changes in their listeners that outlast the moment and allow their message to have a long-term influence on listener behaviour.

This tells us it’s not just first impressions but lasting ones that are formed by the tone we choose. Here’s the research: Mark My Words: Tone of voice changes affective word representations in the memory.


But what is tone?


Tone conveys our attitude to our words and to others. For example, our tone might be warm, abrupt, sarcastic or angry.


As Anne Karpf shares in her wonderful book ‘The Human Voice: the story of a remarkable talent’, ‘…the ear has a repertoire of between 300,000 and 400,000 distinguishable tones of voice.’


The best way to understand tone is to try it for yourself. Just say the word ‘really’ in five different tones: sad, happy, surprised, disgusted, angry. It’s the same word but, depending on the tone you pick, you'll express and others will interpret it differently.


But if you’d like to see a speaker beautifully using tone, there’s no better place to start than this TED Talk by George Monbiot.

George is a journalist, so his fantastic word choices paint vivid pictures in the minds of his audience. Within a single sentence he has an ability to transport you into his world. ‘I found myself scratching at the walls of life, as if trying to find a way out into a wider space beyond,’ is just one example.


But it’s the way he marries his word choices with his tone choices that is so impressive. This powerful alignment between what he says and how he says it leaves no room for doubt about his passion and commitment.


Indeed, he does it so well that in his book The official TED guide to public speaking, Chris Anderson, Head of TED, gives George’s talk special mention. Anderson says: ‘Almost every word he [George] utters is crafted with a different layer of tone and meaning behind it’.


Can I choose my tone?


While everyone’s voice is unique, there are techniques you can use to change how you sound – and subsequently how others perceive you. How we perceive voice is determined by a blend of five different elements - tone is one of those.


What helps me remember them all is this acronym SPILT:

Speed, Pitch, Intonation, Loudness and Tone.


So, before any words are SPILTfrom your lips, it’s worth thinking about these five things and how you can use them to maximise your impact.


Is tone alone enough to influence how I’m perceived?