Austin entrepreneur aims to build business around language analysis

Posted April 30th, 2016

When Tesla founder Elon Musk delivered a highly anticipated speech in March about the launch of a new line of electric cars, Noah Zandan was struck mainly by what was missing. Musk made his pitch about a car of the future without talking much about the future.

Musk focused on the present – what his company is doing now. He broke down his big ideas by creating a picture that his audience could see in their minds, such as describing a battery-production facility that will be the biggest building in the world. Upon a foundation of concrete examples, he built his abstract pitch: the car of the future.

Musk has a reputation as a visionary, one due in no small part to his public-speaking ability. He shares that distinction with many business titans such as Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Sheryl Sandberg and Warren Buffett. They come from disparate backgrounds, sound different and work in different fields – but what do they have in common when they speak?

Zandan is an Austin-based economist-turned-linguistic-analyst who earlier this year delivered TED Talk on that topic.

Noah Zandan

His central conclusion surprised him:

“I thought they would talk about all the great things tomorrow will have,” he said. But in comparison to their less-successful peers, “visionary” leaders “talk 15 percent more about today and 14 percent less about the future.” And the complex thoughts typically associated with smart people – or people who try to sound smart – have been scrubbed from their speeches.

“In reality, (the speeches) are super clean,” Zandan said. “Step 1, step 2, step 3. Very cause-and-effect.”

Zandan, the son of Austin entrepreneur/pollster Peter Zandan, earned an economics degree from Dartmouth and an MBA from Northwestern, working for years as a quantitative analyst in private equity and investment banking. Five years ago he set up a small Austin shop, Quantified Communications, to apply data science to communication. He figured companies, academics and others will pay for the coaching he can provide using proprietary computer software that analyzes communication, including language, voice inflection and facial expression. The company has opened branches in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.

Recent company blog posts have analyzed GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speech patterns, how Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders differ in their public speaking, and the way Berkshire Hathaway chairmanWarren Buffett communicates with shareholders. Zandan is not famous but perhaps best known for a TED-Ed video about how to listen for a liar, which has had nearly 3.8 million YouTube views.

His most recent project was analyzing the communication of the best business leaders and how it differs from less-prominent peers. For each business leader they studied, they analyzed all the communication they could get their hands on, Zandan said: thousands of videos, audio clips, transcripts of speeches. (Zandan declined to say who comprised the less-successful group of business leaders, citing a desire to avoid making people hate him.)

The most successful business leaders stuck to the tangible (airplanes, pizza, Bob Dylan) and the abstract (love, liberty, the Force). They avoided the middle ground of speech that creeps into corporate and government communication: the often-precise but bloodless language in which cooperation is “synergy,” selling something is “monetizing” it, workers are considered “human capital” or “full-time equivalents,” bringing people together is “integrating a diverse ecosystem of partners,” and doing a job correctly is “producing deliverables using skillful strategy and mindful results.”

The visionary leaders also had an unusual reliance second-person pronouns, particularly “you,” Zandan said. That approach, plus a focus on sensory language, is effectively an attempt to evoke an emotional response or experience, which can then be paired with abstract ideas.

“If I’m Richard Branson, and I’m talking about space travel, I want to take you into the ship with me so you can experience what it’s like,” Zandan said.

From there, the speakers a focus on the present. Tesla wants to a create a network of “hyperloops” used by electric-powered cars that drive themselves. But Musk focuses on the steps the company is taking now – or, as Zandan puts it, “taking the vision and connecting it to reality to make it come alive.”