When you really think about it, selling is not just about trading a service or product for money; it’s about persuasion and gaining buy-in about something you are proposing. And in almost any work environment, we do this. Have you ever asked a manager for an increased budget? Requested more hours? Pitched a new idea to the leadership team? If you answered yes—and you probably did—you were selling something. In that case, this new research (Clarke, Cornelissen, & Healey, 2019) is relevant to you.
HOW SALES PITCHES WORK
Picture this: You are an entrepreneur about to make a pitch or presentation to investors. You hope that this pitch will be good enough to convince investors that, despite how risky and untested your venture is, it is an amazing idea worthy of merit. Your viability as a businessperson and the ability to gather funds to bring your ideas to life both depend on how successful this pitch is. This is a challenging situation involving public speaking, which many of us fear. To add another layer of complexity, your venture is related to technology, which can be highly technical and difficult to explain. The researchers examined this exact situation in a study about the use of language and gestures.
GESTURING TO GAIN BUY-IN
Researchers were interested in how much nonverbal expressions, like gestures, would contribute to the likeliness of an investor becoming interested in a technology sales pitch. In the study, 17 tech entrepreneurs pitched ideas to investors from a regional forum. During their pitches, researchers noted what mix of language and gestures were used. From this, they conducted a second study to determine what combination of language and gestures would influence a person’s willingness to invest in the entrepreneur’s idea.
Researchers considered whether high usage of figurative language (metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes) would gain buy-in from investors. However, this did not move investors towards parting with their hypothetical dollars. Instead, using high levels of gesturing to convey the entrepreneur’s ideas made people more likely to invest in them. This high-level gesturing involves two types of nonverbal deliveries: beat and ideational. Beat gestures provide emphasis to the pitch, and ideational gestures add a sort of visual representation of the idea. In other words, beat and ideational gestures allow individuals to “see” what the product and business is like—and it works.
The researchers determined that gesturing seems to convey passion and provide increased mental imagery (about the characteristics or use of a product), and these factors explain why the gesturing makes a difference. Additionally, the researchers determined that gesturing has a stronger relationship with mental imagery depending on the level of figurative language used. The more figurative language used, the stronger the association between gesturing and mental imagery.
It seems that actions really do speak louder than words. Figurative language is still important to the story, but it is better if you can use your gestures to help immerse someone even further into your vision. Said another way, if you want to get your coworkers to agree on your idea, it might be a good idea to involve nonverbal gestures to illustrate and emphasize your points.
Clarke, J. S., Cornelissen, J. P., & Healey, M. P. (2019). Actions speak louder than words: how figurative language and gesturing in entrepreneurial pitches influences investment judgments. Academy of Management Journal, 62(2), 335-360.