The science of sounding smart

When you’re trying to convey the quality of your mind to your boss, or to a company that’s considering you for a job, your best ally may be your own voice.

We discovered this through a series of experiments. One of them consisted of asking each of 18 MBA students in the middle of recruiting season to prepare a spoken pitch to their preferred employers explaining why they should be hired. (We also asked them to prepare a separate written pitch, which we used for a subsequent experiment.) We gave them as much time as they wanted to make their pitches as compelling as possible, and we videotaped the presentations so that we could evaluate the effect of both hearing and seeing the candidates.

We then asked 162 evaluators to watch one video, listen to one audio pitch, or read a transcript (with filler words like “um” removed). The evaluators assessed the candidates’ competence, thoughtfulness and intelligence and reported how much they liked them and how positive an impression they had made. Judgments like these are of fundamental importance for hiring decisions in sectors such as service, in which employers are searching for intelligent employees. Finally, the evaluators reported on how interested they would be in hiring the candidates if they were considering them for positions.

In comparison with those who read the transcripts, the evaluators who heard pitches judged the candidates to have greater intellect (to be more rational, thoughtful and intelligent), on average. They also liked the individuals more, had a more positive overall impression, and — perhaps most important — were more interested in hiring the candidates. Evaluators who saw the videos appeared to be even more favorably impressed, but there was no statistically significant difference between the evaluations of video and audio.

Results like these may come as a surprise to many people. When we asked samples of MBA students, master’s degree students, local (Chicago) community members and online participants to predict whether their intelligence would be judged more positively in speech or text, they expected no meaningful difference between the two. Faced with the question of how best to convey their intellect to a recruiter, providing a short typed pitch or an audio of the same words, roughly half (50 out of 112) of the MBA students we surveyed said they would prefer to provide a written pitch.

Granted, a transcription of a spoken pitch might make for a less-than-compelling text, so we conducted another experiment to test whether the results of a written pitch would be similar to those of a transcript. This experiment confirmed that a person’s mind is indeed conveyed through the voice: In comparison with either a transcript or a student’s carefully written pitch, a spoken pitch led to more positive impressions of candidates’ intellect and more hiring interest.

You might wonder whether people who actually hire candidates for a living would show the same preference for candidates who speak. For ethical reasons, we could not manipulate real hiring decisions, but we could conduct our experiments with professional recruiters. After a conference, we asked 39 recruiters from companies such as Microsoft and Goldman Sachs either to listen to a candidate’s pitch or to read a transcript. On average, they too judged a candidate to be more intelligent, likable, and employable if they heard, rather than read, a pitch.

(Juliana Schroeder is an assistant professor in the Haas Management of Organizations Group at the University of California, Berkeley. Nicholas Epley is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate