In a manner of speaking

When it comes to communicating, how you say it is just as important as what you say.

Figure on a platform yelling into a megaphone to a group of frowning individuals.
When it comes to communicating — in a pitch, a presentation, or informally — how you say it is just as important as what you say, according to a VCU professor who specializes in entrepreneurship. (Getty Images)

Humans are hardwired to approach positive outcomes and avoid potentially bad ones, said Blakley C. Davis, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business.

“When someone is speaking positively, or if I smile at you or something else — something positive, in other words — it’s more likely that you will experience an approach orientation, meaning you're going to feel like it's safe to approach me,” he said. “Your mind's going to go at ease. Whereas if I speak negatively, I yell at you, that's potentially going to trigger avoidance orientation, meaning you don’t know if anything bad will happen, but missing out on the potential good is better than potentially encountering danger.”

Davis, who teaches entrepreneurship, works to provide students with an entrepreneurial mindset. The skills are not just for starting a business; they can be applied to new jobs, new methods or new products.

After researching crowdfunding for almost a decade, Davis expanded his interest to encompass emotions of investors and how crowdfunders specifically interpret communications and make decisions. Crowdfunders are not as logical as traditional investors, he said. They tend to think emotionally.

I initially became interested in how entrepreneurs communicate with potential investors and how those efforts influence entrepreneurs’ ability to obtain funding,” Davis said. “More recently, however, I have begun looking at how entrepreneurs communicate emotion: How they act during the presentations in terms of their tone of voice, their facial expressions, their body movements, and their choice of words.”

Realizing that entrepreneurs’ vocal tone induces motivation in crowdfunders, Davis began studying vocalics. Here’s what he has to say about communicating with your voice.

What is vocalics?

That's simply the nonverbal use of the voice. So the underlying mechanics.

Is there a way to change your voice if you're not good at communicating?

We're looking at the overall positivity, negativity and the energy behind that. So I would say yes, simply because what we're looking at is something that you can consciously control. Maybe attending singing or speech classes, things of that nature. [It’s the] same thing with other areas in terms of visual representations of emotion or visual communication as well. Those are all things that you can learn to control. So an entrepreneur might benefit from taking an acting class, for example.

In fact, for years I've thought it would be great for entrepreneurship students to be required to take an acting course because even if you're not a very expressive person, or you're kind of introverted or whatever else, you could still be passionate. You may not show it, but we know that communicating visually and verbally in a positive way is helpful for entrepreneurs. That helps them to make those network connections. It helps them to make sales, to obtain investments, etc. And all those things we can learn. We can learn how to express emotions. The same goes for the voice, too.

You’ve mentioned that people who display more passion are viewed as more competent. How does that apply to different genders? I’ve read that the same traits that are perceived as confidence or assertiveness in men are often viewed as hysterics in women. Is there any difference in how passion is viewed across genders?

From my work, I looked at both women and men entrepreneurs in the study that we did with passion and it was positive across the board, so there was no difference there.

What I think you're getting at in terms of being assertive is different from displaying passion. So yes, I would suggest that there are certainly differences in terms of how different forms of emotions are going to impact the perception across gender, as well as race. But with passion, that's more likely to be universal.

Is it fair to equate passion with enthusiasm?

Generally, we would define passion in the context of entrepreneurship as a very strong, internal positive feeling that's activated when you're engaging in entrepreneurial activities. It doesn't have to be displayed externally. The only way that entrepreneurial passion has been measured externally is just really speaking with the animated tone of voice, speaking with varied tone and pitch, having animated facial expressions, using a lot of hand gestures. So highly related to excitement, more or less.

Is it possible to be too passionate?

Yes.

Your area is entrepreneurship and then how vocalics affects entrepreneurs pitching to possible investors. But I think it's an area of interest to most people. So is it something that could help, let’s say, job applicants in their interviews?

Having the correct tone of voice obviously can have a positive impact in terms of your ability to get a job. If you use a positive tone, for example, that's going to make someone more comfortable. It may cause them to like you more. And the reason is that whenever you engage in positive speech, a couple of things can happen. For example, emotional contagion can occur, meaning that you catch my emotions. Whenever you hear someone giving a really riling speech and they're happy, you tend to feel that too. Whereas if you sit in a lecture where I'm just droning, you get tired and you get sleepy because you're catching my emotion. Similarly, by espousing positive emotion, it may cause other people to view you through “rose-colored glasses” and really focus on the positive qualities that you bring to the table. When this occurs, other people may be more likely to view you as intelligent, competent, or even creative. 

What advice do you have for anybody who needs to give a presentation or pitch?

I would say to practice it, obviously. Ensure that all of your communication aligns with the pitch. If you're trying to, for example, pull at people's heartstrings, if you're trying to make some type of a personal type of appeal, make sure that your voice reflects that. Alternatively, if you're trying to make people excited, that also needs to be reflected in your voice.