Can a monotone voice land you in jail?

Recently, the jury in a big insider trading case delivered a “Guilty on all counts” verdict.

Later, one of the jurors told The Wall Street Journal her impressions of the defense attorney:

His voice was a “monotone.” He seemed “tired.”

Of course, the evidence didn’t help either. But suppose the defense had hired someone more lively.

Why not Lady Gaga? She could have sung the closing arguments in a high-heeled frenzy, and then instructed the jury, “Just dance.”

Maybe the defense still would have lost.

But consider:

If you’re an executive pitching a business plan to other seasoned executives, what determines the outcome?


And if you’re a surgeon, what determines if you get sued?

Often, it’s your voice.

M.I.T. professor Alex Pentland demonstrated that you can predict winning business pitches without paying any attention to the content.

Instead, he focused on critical nonverbal behaviors, like vocal variety (“Understanding ‘Honest Signals’ in Business”).

Similarly, you can predict which surgeons will get sued just by listening to their tone of voice for 40 seconds, even if you can’t understand a word they’re saying.

The worst tone for surgeons? Dominant. That’s according to psychologist Nalini Ambady (“Surgeons’ tone of voice: A clue to malpractice history”).

How’s your voice?

The lawyer in the insider trading case assumed his voice was fine. It wasn’t

You’re probably spending more time on conference calls and in virtual meetings these days.

As soon as you say “Good morning,” you’ve made a lasting impression. Even if you don’t sing it.

Tip: Listen to how you sound. The easiest way is voice mail. Record a new outgoing message, then critique it.

If you phone me, you’ll hear, “Hi, this is Paul Hellman, the week of May 30 . . .”

I change my message weekly. Sometimes, it requires a few takes, but that’s good practice. And it’s good to reassure everyone that you were definitely alive on the 29th.


To sound alive is no small thing.

© Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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