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The five words that can swing a meeting in your favour

Frustrated your ideas go unheard in meetings? Academics have identified the five words successful managers use to win backing for their proposals.

Everybody's sat in a meeting where they felt like they were talking but nobody was listening.

But what if there were a sure fire way to get your colleagues to take notice? Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management examined what language is most likely to win over peers when used in meetings.

After applying "machine learning algorithms" to a "very large amount of meeting data" they identified the words most commonly used to gain support for proposals or take the lead in discussions.

These were "yeah, give, start, meeting" and "discuss".

The word may 'yeah' seems surprising as a persuasive word, but, said professor Cynthia Rudin, "when we looked at the way people were using it, we found they were using it to show agreement with something that someone else previously said. Perhaps if you frame a suggestion as if it were in agreement with others, it’s more likely to be accepted."

While 'yeah' was most frequently used to garner approval, 'meeting' was most often successfully used to shut down discussion of a topic, she said.

"For instance, someone might say, ‘Maybe this is something for the next meeting,’ as a way of gently moving the topic onward without causing offence. That suggestion was almost always accepted," she said.

Rudin and a PhD student Been Kim, said they were also able to identify when key decisions were being made in meetings based on the combination of information provided or requested, and the mix of suggestions, acceptances or rejections.

“This would be useful when listening to a previously recorded meeting and you want to fast forward to the key decision. Or, it might help managers be more efficient if they could be automatically alerted to join a meeting when a decision is about to be made,” said Rudin.

The research also found little evidence to support the idea that managers dish out "compliment sandwiches", where they soften the blow of bad news or a criticism by nestling it between positive statements.

"We’re just at the beginning of finding ways to use machine learning to produce tools for more efficient meetings. Since everyone wants their ideas accepted, it’s worth considering word choice in proposals. You don’t want to undermine your idea by not using the right language," said Rudin.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

42 comments
PeteDude
PeteDude

I think these studies have value, although I do agree that we need more conclusive information provided to us, not just broad statistical data. Hardly a day goes by where there isn't some sort of "study" that's so broad and vague, that even with particular trend data it says little because the root causes of issues or potential positive/negative outcomes of trends are not provided. It's as if people just want to throw data at us just to go "gee, look, we have data!".

gechurch
gechurch

"Yeah" - People use this when they agree with something. People also use it when they disagree with something but don't want to sound rude. That makes this word pretty much meaningless in the context of a meeting. "Give" - In my experience this is most often used as a soft way of saying 'no'. Eg. A manager might say "Ok, we'll give that idea some thought" when they really mean "That idea is stupid. We're never going to do that". "Start" - I can see why this one was a key word from their research. You don't normally have meetings to discuss how you want to keep everything the same. You meet to discuss ideas of things you can start doing that will be better than what you're currently doing. So from a research POV, yes this is a key word. From an effectiveness at putting your idea across point of view? Pointless. "Meeting" - Again, I can see how this is important from the point of view of having a computer automatically catalogue the discussion of a meeting (phrases like "The reason I've called this meeting", "Thank you all for attending this meeting" or "Let's book another meeting to discuss that idea" are all phrases that a computer can use as 'markers' for where the meeting is at). But again, I can't see how saying the word "meeting" is going to strengthen an idea that you bring to the table. "Discuss" - This one is just redundant from the point of view of getting your idea across. The whole point of a meeting is to have a new idea put forward and to discuss it. Discussing the new idea is the natural thing to do. Saying "let's discuss..." before your idea isn't "the right language" to get your ideas heard.

mandrake64
mandrake64

Fire!!! Best not placed in a presentation slide. Next effective. Volunteers?

aidemzo_adanac
aidemzo_adanac

Now some group at MIT has decided that computers can actually identify speech patterns, based on a keyword tracking algorithm and discover when choices and decisions, based on keywords, were made?!?!? And somebody actually paid for it to be done? How carefully do they analyze audio in speech patterns? How do they discern what influence voice inflection has? How do they know when a key word has actually influenced a person, when they may hold back that interest for another 15 minutes before expressing interest? This is a school of management ? Give me a break, what a clueless and mindless approach to spending money. Having taught public speaking and having been in C-Level B2B sales for a good 25+ years now, I can promise you that what comes out of my mouth in a meeting, whether as a speech or response to a speech, is very carefully timed and voice inflection is absolutely IMPERATIVE. There's no mention of how sentences were presented, ie. closed or open. There's no mention of when the listener was ACTUALLY influenced, they just picked up on keywords when they got a positive response, which could be fabricated or even held off for 20 minutes during a presentation. Conclusion, an absolutely mindless, clueless waste of time, money and effort. For many years I have hard many people write or speak about the keys that move meetings, they contradict each other almost every time. It is a learned skill, and almost anyone can learn it, which reaches as far as stance, body language, eye movements, voice inflection etc. Just because someone is saying one thing, it doesn't mean that's what others are listening to or have reacted to. Just because someone peppers a speech with keywords, 'proven to be effective' it doesn't mean they will reiterate them and get similar results. I can say the exact same thing, three or four different ways, an get three or four completely different responses from people. The whole test is a farce, though they do indicate they will be wasting a lot more time and money on this in the future.

neohelios
neohelios

Isn't this the same premise of the cyclic nature of "resume building"? I mean every other week, it seems as though a newspaper column is published with "new, improved, eye-catching industry buzz words" to tack on to your resume, which quickly become lost in the noise as hiring groups see them so much, they become desensitized and tune them out. Should we be focusing on WORDS or the MEANINGS behind the words? I mean that's what we are really after in the first place, right? We want to associate a feel-good sensation to the material of our presentation. I wouldn't be surprised if people like to feel good, so they are more receptive to words like "bonus" rather than "yeah". Here is another example of why I'm not threatened by some big Hollywood "robot take-over". There are some things which machines simply CANNOT do better than a human. I don't mean any disrespect, but I think the OP is missing a major crux of communication. ...or maybe I'm missing the point of the post. I don't know.

dipakpravin
dipakpravin

This finding is completely RANDOM, the "machine" sure had a bad day at the office. I wish these researcher correlate and/or somehow validate their results before making them public. In the last 25 years, I must have been in hundreds of meetings in US corporations of various sizes. I hope no federal dollars were spent in doing this research--I hate our hard earned money go to waste like this--specifically where the researchers don't even use common sense to validate the results. -d

oldraindog
oldraindog

There's a huge scholarly literature based on close analysis of conversation in decision-making groups (I've published some myself). I suspect the error here is how TR is framing the results. I would be very surprised if competent researchers claimed these words had anything more than structural functions in the collaborative management of group discussion. They are no more "swaying" than "my second point is...." I wouldn't blame the researchers for TR's ludicrous headline without reading the published article.

holmes_saltillo
holmes_saltillo

Normally you have good articles, not this time, useless, no new information, as in "YEAH" you ran out of ideas for an article, next time "GIVE" more thought, "START" dedicating more time to your articles and make sure you have a "MEETING" to "DISCUSS" topics to avoid posting useless information, but keep the good work (do the sandwich compliment work?) How about I, HE, SHE, YOU, WE, US, THEY? I bet they were mentioned more times, or how about maybe, yes no, please? Any manager will get attention or get people to rally if get fired, promotion, bonus, raise get mentioned.

BillGates_z
BillGates_z

Maybe fewer mind shredding meetings would be better but hey, thanks HAL.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

What is up with the "more efficient for managers to join meetings as a decision is about to be made"? Is that so they can interrupt the decision and make the meeting longer? Or is there a base need to look like they are a part of the decision? If all the work to come to a decision has already been done how is it going to help the manager to be there when the decision is made? Why can't they just get it in report afterwards? That would be more efficient. Bill

pgit
pgit

or "finished," "done" or other goal-oriented words...

tvmuzik
tvmuzik

Whoever wrote that article probably lives in Sarahpalinland. I've got five words that will grab people's attention, akin to grabbing chickens in an Ethiopian Choke-hold: LISTEN...TO...ME...RIGHT...NOW!!!

smckenna
smckenna

So 'proactive', 'synergize', 'leverage', 'agile', and 'smart' didn't make the cut? What about 'bonus', 'recognition', 'raise', 'layoff'?

Mark-Robinson
Mark-Robinson

They are useless because everyone will be watching out for them to prevent manipulation and the smart people will be looking for new ones that are effective.

kjohnson
kjohnson

There are so many words in common use in the English language, or any other language, that I can say with certainty that certain words will be present in all suggestions that are accepted and certain words will be absent from all suggestions that are not accepted. That's inevitable, and it does not imply any causal relationship. For instance if every suggestion that is accepted at a meating contains the word "shoelace," that does not mean that you can make sure your suggestions are accepted by including the word "shoelace" in them. I think it is more likely that suggestions will be accepted if they are good and practicable suggestions. Those more sceptical than I would wonder why the word "bribe" isn't in the list, of course.

kjohnson
kjohnson

I agree with Neil Postlethwaite.

deneventer
deneventer

“yeah, give, start, meeting” and “discuss. Sorry but this sounds like cheap Bgrade movie dialog or the intro to a porn scene.

Mark Walters
Mark Walters

Well, that was a non-starter. Here you think you are about to get some helpful information, and it just gets started when it stops...what is the point of that? Key to these words being able to influence a meeting is the WAY in which they are used, but this article only covered 2 of the 5. In my opinion this means we only have 1/2 an article, and does not match the promise implied in your Takeaway at the start of the article. Thanks to Chaz Chance# who at least gave us a way to find the original article.

johnmboon
johnmboon

No, I think these five words make perfect sense, as in ": "YEAH I don't GIVE a damn what you came here to DISCUSS, START MEETING your targets or the five words you'll hear next are 'Clear your desk, you're fired.'" :-)

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

This article appears to be based another published on the Green Technology World site in June. If you want to review the original paper, which offers much more contextual insight, you can read it at the Cornell University Library (arXiv.org) by doing a search under Computer Science for one of the authors and the title "Learning About Meetings". Even if you skip over the hardcore computer science parts there is plenty of really interesting stuff for anyone with an interest in being a more effective influencer at meetings or elsewhere. It also makes more sense than the extracts above.

56Wrecker
56Wrecker

Practical Experience has taught me that these words work better: 1.Double-Check (as in Quality.) 2. Re-Think (as in look for flaws) 3. Decide ( as in NOW ) 4. Work ( as in it is TIME to WORK ) 5. Adjourn ( as in END this meeting AND GO TO WORK ! )

jsargent
jsargent

if you analysed a conversation with a terrorist and his interrogator you would find the same distribution of “yeah, give, start, meeting” and “discuss”. I can't help feel that they placed as conclusions as what they hoped to find before they even started the study.

jsargent
jsargent

Start a meeting, discuss it and give me a break from these pointless and completely baseless PhD studies. Science isn't just about pointless observation but is about putting proof to conclusions. I think that Sloan and Harvard have forgotten the basic principles of science laid down thousands of years ago by Greek philosophers and just let these studies pass to justify to their students why their parents wasted their hard earned cash on studies that should never pass the PhD approval committee. I'm in support of psychology and the progress of human understanding but you cannot approve studies that have conclusions not derived from true scientific methods of observation and proof.

michael
michael

Reminds me of a dear colleague that I worked with many years ago who would always express his disagreement in these words: "I agree. The point is this:..."

neil.postlethwaite
neil.postlethwaite

These were “yeah, give, start, meeting” and “discuss”. ... Your kidding, right ?? Can I propose 5 different words that might generate infinite amounts of more interest 1. Doughnuts (as in free box) 2. Beer (as in lets discuss informally) 3. Saving (as in cost.time/money) 4. Margin (as in increasing) 5. Delivery (as in on time, budget, and to specification and scope, to satisfied users) .. These people at Sloan and Harvard have turned common sense running a business into a mumbo-jumbo pseudo-science, with the ultimate beneficiaries being the business schools and their acolytes.

gechurch
gechurch

The research itself sounds interesting and promising. For years we've been working on indexing and interpreting text with computers. The idea of being able to catalogue spoken language with a computer might not be a game-changer, but it does open up some cool possibilities. As for the article and Rudin's conclusions, well they were underwhelming. The title was misleading since there was nothing practical here anyone could use to more effectively put their ideas across in a meeting. Honestly, the idea that “yeah, give, start, meeting” and “discuss” is the "right language" is laughable. Is "yeah, I think we should have another meeting to start discussing the idea of marketing our hand-guns to toddlers" more effective than "I think we should market our hand-guns to toddlers"?

lcave
lcave

Yeah! (Oppsie!)

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

Because nobody refers to bribes as bribes in recorded meetings.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

of the "monkeys typing Shakespeare" theorem.

eaglewolf
eaglewolf

No matter padding it with 'contextual insight.' If it all boils down to those 5 words, it's still of little value. And being 'Green Technology' doesn't help. Many things that claim to be 'green' and are snapped up by the masses really aren't. Now, for this article, maybe the green is adding some weed to the meeting?

pgit
pgit

The point of the article is they are beginning to apply "machine learning" to the social sciences. My opinion, however, is probably in alignment with yours, as I don't consider "social sciences" to be "science" at all. It's a way to get post-grad money out of people destined to be 'public service' bureaucrats and petty dictators.

lcave
lcave

As in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner "water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink", why is it that we have mountains of data and no one seems to be able to do their job? Give me a break from these worthless studies!

kjohnson
kjohnson

A manager once told a friend of mine, "When you are in a meeting, and somebody says something with which you disagree, you do not say 'Rubbish!.' You say, 'I do not agree.'" So, I do not agree.

jan
jan

I also agree with the OP and some of the comments. These words are so common that the act of picking them out as "swinging" words does not make much sense to me. Oh and BTW, it is "compliment sandwich" not "complement sandwich". One more comment: it seems odd that TR starts to British spelling ("favour" and "offence") in an article about MIT / Sloan.

jsargent
jsargent

The reason that Social Sciences are considered as sciences is ONLY because it requires linked proof by observation where all other conclusions have been exhausted. I'm sure that, in this case, everyone's complaint is that the observations that they made could not have been considered under any conditions to any proof of causal affect.

eaglewolf
eaglewolf

One of the new MS programs lets you select not only the hilarious auto-complete of your words, but, by a form of 'machine learning,' will select the next word for you and automagically put it in your document. Sew ewe don't haft two dew mulch of anything! Psychobabble is psychobabble .. no matter if it's from Harvard or your local community college. It just costs more at the 'H' and I guess that gives you privilege to promote it with fanfare.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

to justify the latest b-school "Here's how to succeed" buzz.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TR UK.