You can be more like Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg and Richard Branson starting now. All you have to do is watch--and quantify--your language.
Noah Zandan is the CEO and co-founder of Quantified Communications, an Austin-based company that measures how well people communicate and uses data to help them improve. To isolate elements that make speech powerful, his business has spent the last five years studying the language patterns of visionary leaders. Zandan’s team found quantifiable differences between how the great ones talk compared with the rest of us, he told the audience Friday at Wharton’s People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia.
The company began by scraping together all the text, audio, and video of recognized great communicators it could find: everything from earnings calls to Presidential addresses to TED talks. They dissected those: analyzing everything from choice of topics at the broad end of the spectrum to choice of words at the narrow end. “What we found is that the people we consider to be visionaries do three things in common,” Zandan told the audience. “But it is not what expected to find.”
They talk about the present: Zandan’s team had assumed visionary leaders “would paint this picture of a utopian future,” he said. In fact, it found those leaders use 15% more present tense and 14% less future tense than average communicators. “A visionary would not say something like, ‘We will achieve these results.’ Instead they would say, ‘We plan to achieve these results,’” said Zandan. That approach, he said, makes the audience want to know how they will get there and also makes the speaker more credible. Zandan gave the example of Elon Musk, who never describes some “George Jetson” future, but rather “applies all his ideas to now, with steps.” Compared with the average communicator, Musk uses four times as much present tense as future tense, said Zandan.
They talk clearly and simply. The company measured clarity by, among other things, counting the number of words in communicators’ sentences, the number of syllables in each word, and by assessing whether communicators drew clear lines between cause and effect. “A visionary CEO would never say something like, ‘Over the next three quarters, through cost-cutting synergies and improved efficiencies, we plan to achieve these results,’” says Zandan. As an exemplar of clarity, he cited Sheryl Sandberg, quoting this passage from a recent commencement speech: “Believing in yourself is part of what got you to this special day. Continue to believe in yourself. Don't let anyone put limits on you. Don't put limits on yourself.” Sandberg, said Zandan, is 85% more clear than the average communicator. “That is why people connect with her and believe in her.”
They talk about you: Visionary leaders put their audiences front and center, using 60% more second-person pronouns than average communicators, says Zandan. They also use 38% more sensory language that describes how things look and feel. “They wouldn't say something like, ‘The connected-up home of the future will have great benefits,’” Said Zandan. “Instead they will say, ‘You wake up, and you have a warm cup of coffee waiting. The temperature will be perfect as it hits your skin.’” To model this trait, Zandan chose Richard Branson who, through language, draws audiences into an almost VR-vivid experience of space travel. “When the rocket stops, you will be in space,” Branson once explained in an interview. “There will be complete silence. You will unbuckle, and you will float around as you gently lift up and hit the roof.”
“We all want our visions to be heard,” said Zandan. “What's exciting is that…with communication analytics and data we can learn how to do this.”