Skip to main content

Speech has been our main communication medium for thousands of years and there is plenty of scientific evidence that we process language fairly automatically. For example, studies have shown that background speech is more disruptive when we are trying to read or study compared to nonverbal sounds like music, probably because we are automatically drawn to notice the speech..

In order to get a message across in non-direct speech you must pay careful attention to factors such as tone, congruency, and trust. This article explores the science behind quality (i.e. effective) speech communications.

Let’s start with an example that happened to me only a few days ago. I occasionally visit the gym on my lunch hour, where they play commercial radio. In between the songs there are the standard promotions, adverts and infomercials. I had been warming up when my friend turned to me and said, “Did you hear that, that is a really good idea”. I said “What?” I knew someone had been speaking but I had no idea what had been said. Turns out it was an announcement about a new non-emergency phone number for the UK police (101, by the way) – so, good information. But I completely missed it. Why?

Tone and environment: I believe the first reason was the tone. It was a male speaker with a fairly monotone, relaxed voice which failed to capture my attention. And this was not the actor’s fault, as the biggest problem was the environmental incongruence or mismatch. The information that gets my attention in a gym is usually given by lively, energetic voices – as that is how I tend to feel in a gym. So we have two issues here: the temperament failed to grab my attention and the fit with the environment was wrong.

This example highlights the importance of the right communication in the right environment. If you are interested in putting across information to staff or consumers then you must consider what might be the most effective way to use language in that space. Consider the environment. Consider the tone of the voice. Consider the demographics of your consumers or clients as well as their likely aims and mood in your space.

The ultimate aim is a match, or congruency, between message and environment as we process information most effectively when there is minimal cognitive dissonance in our world.

Trust and honesty: Another important issue to consider in generating effective, quality sound communication is trust. Most people have a natural tendency to be wary of adverts; we are well aware of the difference between somebody trying to sell something and somebody providing helpful information.

The key to the successful consumer/ client communication is to give the impression that you are providing useful information rather than trying to wave a product in someone’s face when they would rather just be left alone to browse. This is doubly important in a public area, where our sense of personal space is strong and we are resistant to ‘invasion’. This applies to the auditory world as much as anywhere else – our desire to retain private space is one of the main reasons that people in busy cities walk around with headphones.

And then there is honesty. A long standing finding in psychology regards the Duchenne smile or a variation that became known as the Pan-Am smile, apparently named after the smiles worn by flight attendants on the now defunct Pan American World Airways. These types of smile, most of the time, are fake. And studies show we can reliably tell a fake smile from a real one, even if we don’t know how we are making the judgement. And we can also hear fake emotion in voices as well. So if you are trying to provide information and expect an impression of trust and honesty – qualities that we associate with genuine information – then there is little value in going for a faked emotional expression or tone.

Quality sound communication is built on a scientific understanding of our psychological responses to being in public spaces, the limits and biases of our perception and attention mechanisms, and our ability to evaluate social and emotional intent. Getting the balance right between these features can make the difference between simply hearing speech and listening to the message.

“Immedia have perfected these psychological speech variations in in-store environments. It is these differences that drive effective speech communications and indeed entice further spending decisions supported by honest information and correct tonality.”  – Bruno Brookes, CEO