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Big data, or B.S.?

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We got wind of it last week, through a splashy article on Stanford Business School’s website titled excitingly, “A Big Data Approach to Public Speaking.”

An Austin, Tex.-based consultancy called Quantified Communications “analyzed more than 100,000 presentations from corporate executives, politicians and keynote speakers,” according to the Stanford piece. “They examined behaviors ranging from word choices and vocal cues to facial expressions and gesture frequency. They then used this data to rate and rank important communication variables such as persuasiveness, confidence, warmth, and clarity.”

Let’s set aside the fact that the above paragraph reads like a suicide note.

The insights the “big data” yielded are at once completely commonplace—strong and clear language matters, vocal qualities matter, gestures matter, authenticity is good—and comically specific.

For instance, the company claims that “the language used in corporate earnings calls affects up to 2.5% of stock price improvement,” according to the Stanford piece. “Up to” 2.5%? How on earth could they come up with that?

We also learn that “a 10% increase in vocal variety can have a highly significant impact on your audience's attention to and retention of your message.” How do you measure a 10% increase in variety, and how do you NOT measure the size of the impact beyond saying, “highly significant.”

And finally—get your mind ready for this one—we learn that “the top 10% of authentic speakers were considered to be 1.3 times more trustworthy and 1.3 times more persuasive than the average communicator.” The Stanford piece adds, “Authenticity is made up of the passion and warmth that people have when presenting.”

The folks at Quantified Communications have some explaining to do, to natively skeptical speechwriters everywhere: About how they actually “analyzed” 100,000 presentations, how they came to the figures they came to, and most importantly, to what imaginable use might this big data be put by working leadership communicators who already know that compelling communication is the combined result of what the speaker says and how the speaker says it.

They have explaining to do, and they should have a platform to do it.

So we’re sending this article to Quantified Communications’ executive communications practice lead Briar Goldberg, and we’ll publish her response. —DM