The Sound of Success: What an Entrepreneur’s Voice Reveals (or Doesn’t)

May 24, 2023

The latest findings in voice research

When former Stanford student Elizabeth Holmes laid out the innovative technology of her start-up, a blood test that, she claimed, would revolutionize medical diagnostics, she spoke with a melodious and powerful baritone voice. The American newspaper USA Today raved about the “soft yet commanding voice that makes a listener lean in as if waiting for marching orders” whenever Holmes addressed an audience. The young woman came across as smart, confident, and witty to a fault. Droves of investors succumbed to her hypnotic spell, thanks to which she was able to collect close to one billion US dollars in a very short amount of time. Sounds too good to be true? It was: she intentionally deepened her voice, and her start-up Theranos was a fraud. Nikolaus Franke, Academic Director of the MBA Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the WU Executive Academy, has analyzed how Elizabeth Holmes used her voice to boost her business and what investors and entrepreneurs can learn from the latest findings in voice research.

Voice as the key to success: can entrepreneurs influence their investors purely with their voice? Photo © shutterstock - New Africa
Voice as the key to success: can entrepreneurs influence their investors purely with their voice? Photo © shutterstock - New Africa

We might be mainly interacting by emails and text messages today, but the human voice is probably still the most important channel for communication and exchanging information. People talk to each other, using about 16,000 words on an average day. And in addition to the information conveyed through the content and text itself, the voice reveals much more, speaking volumes about the speaker, their intentions, qualities, strengths, and weaknesses. Listeners receive these signals transmitted by the voice and draw their conclusions about the speaker from them. Frequently, this happens much more quickly and in a more sustainable way than we are aware of.

What happened in Elizabeth Holmes’ case? The confidence woman was apparently aware of the allure of her own voice, using it in a targeted way. Proof of that can be found in an interview, when Holmes’ usual self-discipline slipped: in the beginning, she speaks in a higher pitch. The moment she realizes that the camera is rolling, however, she immediately lowers her voice, speaking more slowly and in an almost throaty tone – qualities that listeners are known to associate with authority, confidence, and strong leadership.

Voice Research on the Rise

Scientific research on the human voice is advancing at a breath-taking pace thanks to the new technologies available today. By using artificial intelligence and software to analyze and alter voices, researchers can investigate the impact of a voice on listeners and contrast it with the speaker’s actual properties in a fraction of the time that was necessary in the past, when such analyses required professional speakers, a large sample of recordings, and a manual count of results. This research field is currently rather fragmented, with scientists working independently from each other in disciplines as diverse as psychology, medicine, linguistics, communication sciences, and evolutionary biology. The economic sciences have yet to incorporate the findings of voice research.

Modern technology can be used to find out a lot about the effect of the voice - but interdisciplinary research is still in its infancy. Photo © shutterstock - Sergey Bitos
Modern technology can be used to find out a lot about the effect of the voice - but interdisciplinary research is still in its infancy. Photo © shutterstock - Sergey Bitos

Entrepreneurs in Particular Need to Convince Listeners

Oral communication is crucial for entrepreneurs. It’s a decisive component of investor pitches, financing negotiations, crowdfunding videos, networking events, and many other situations, where they try to convince their audiences of their capabilities and the unique opportunities their project offers. A start-up is something new and thus by definition a bet on the future, which makes it even more important to be able to convince listeners.

What Investors and Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Voice Research

In a research project at WU Vienna’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Nikolaus Franke and his colleagues Jan Fell and Klaus Marhold are investigating how voice research findings, currently scattered across many fields, can be put to use in the area of entrepreneurship, both from investors’ and entrepreneurs’ perspectives.

1. Investors’ Perspective: Can I Discover the Next Unicorn by Its Voice?

A conceptual analysis shows that the combination of the fundamental dimensions of voice (pitch, volume, pace, and quality) make up a unique “code” that expresses the core qualities of the speaker, in this case: the entrepreneur.

This means that, to a certain degree, an entrepreneur’s confidence, creativity, motivation, openness, passion, and trustworthiness will be revealed by their voice. Listeners who are able to “de-code” the signals borne by the entrepreneur’s voice will thus be able to glean important information regarding the speaker’s true qualities.

Nikolaus Franke

Nikolaus Franke

  • Academic Director of the MBA Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Innovative voice analysis technologies are valuable tools for venture capitalists, business angels, and corporate investors, allowing them to make better and more accurate assessments of a start-up’s likelihood to succeed.

2. Entrepreneurs’ Perspective: Learning to Speak More Effectively

Findings regarding the effects of a person’s voice are not just useful for investors. As demonstrated by the case of Elizabeth Holmes, the signals conveyed by a person’s voice do not necessarily match their actual qualities. People can use their voices to manipulate listeners, just as through body language and rhetoric. Entrepreneurs who know about voice codes and how to use them effectively in their speech have a much easier time convincing others of their qualities – or even creating an impression that is, objectively, unfounded. In addition to knowing what will work well, it is also important to know what won’t. To give just one example: many people under 40 have adopted the habit of “uptalking.” The rising pitch at the end of a sentence makes statements sound like questions. Speakers who talk this way come across as insecure and little persuasive. New voice analysis technologies can be used to systematically train a person’s voice to create a certain effect. If this sounds like too much of an effort, it is also possible to alter one’s existing voice with the use of technology. Just as pop stars can “pimp” their voice, entrepreneurs can rely on technology to make targeted changes to their voice in video conferences with investors or in pitch videos. Possibilities like these highlight the importance of finding out more about the human voice and its effects on entrepreneurship and other spheres.

Update for Leaders

Join 15,000 + professionals and get monthly updates on leadership and management topics. Learn something new every month. 

Share this