How to Be Less Dumb About Paraverbal Signals
Getting past the rind of the conversation...
I was dumb about lots of things when I was young. After all, that’s what young is for.
One example: I didn't know how to read paraverbal or non-verbal signals very well. In fact, I didn't even have a word for paraverbal signals, which made them hard to think about at all.
(For the record, paraverbal signals are signals we send when we talk, and which go beyond the words we say or write, but which are directly attached to those words.)
When speaking, paraverbal signals could be your tone, pace and volume, and intervening silences. These combine with non-verbal signals, like eye contact, physical gestures, clothing choice, etc., and also with verbal signals like the words you actually said.
When writing, paraverbal signals could be our response times, emojis, or the media we choose for writing -- e.g. text messages, emails, Whatsapp/Signal/etc, voice mails, Slack DMs. Paraverbals can also include things like "register" -- how formal or familiar is it? How funny or serious? What does that register connote?
If you’re a founder at an early-stage startup, which is to say a salesperson, or really if you’re anyone who wants to convince anyone else of anything in this world, then you need to pay attention to the paraverbal signals that the other side uses, and you need to adapt to them.
Sometimes you need to match them, other times you need to meet them where they are and lead them somewhere new by not quite matching them (say, being more playful, or more urgent, or more serious). But the one thing you should never do is communicate in a way that's tone-deaf.
What does tone-deaf look like?
Tone-deaf is when someone sends you a text message … and you respond with an email.
Tone-deaf is when someone sends you an email in a formal register … and you respond with emojis and exclamation points.
Tone-deaf is when you ask someone for a favor, and then after they get back to you, you wait days to respond. Especially if they responded to you quickly!
The paraverbal message that being tone-deaf sends back is: I’m not really paying attention to you, because I don’t really care. You should only do that if you actually want to put someone off. If you don’t, you’ll break all kinds of things that you don’t want to break, like trust.
A lot of time, when I was doing something a little tone-deaf, like responding in the wrong channel, or not responding quickly enough, I would have a subtle sense that I was doing something wrong. (A big lesson in life has been to listen to that subtle sense that something is wrong — it points to lots of important things!)
Back then, I didn't know how to name it. I couldn't put my finger on it. I didn't have a clear rule to motivate and remind myself, like "Brush your teeth before bed."
A Subtlety in a Rabbit Hole Wrapped in an Enigma
Winston Churchill once defined Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." A lot of successful communication is a nuance, buried in a rabbit hole, wrapped in plausible deniability. It's hard to do, and hard to decipher!
It would be silly to pretend to name all those subtleties, or to give any universal advice, because there are more exceptions than rules.
When you're someone's boss, for example, you can and should set the tone and choose the medium. If you have preferences about how direct reports should communicate with you, go ahead and tell them!
But if you're a founder chasing sales, you don't set the rules, and very few people will do you the favor of telling what their rules are. You have to watch how your targets behave, listen for their revealed preferences, and then work with that.
So that’s the only clear rule: just pay attention to everything around the words. The words are just the rind of the conversation, and the non- and para-verbal signals are the juicy flesh of it.
Part of sales is getting to know your prospect. Sure, you can start with whether they have kids and which sports team they like. But a big part is the paraverbals: which channels do they prefer to use? When are they responsive? Are they comfortable giving negative feedback, or do you have to read between the lines?
Another paraverbal signal is: who in my organization should communicate with the prospect? Are they more like to respond to the CEO than a recruiter? Then give a recruiter access to your LinkedIn account for outreach. Are they more likely to respond well to males or females in customer support and sales? Then hire (or catfish) accordingly.
Building Networks vs Closing Deals
Here's another tip: if you're building a network, you can be long-term greedy. You don't need people to respond right away, or to respond in a particular manner. For example, maybe you met someone and talked about something interesting. You want to meet them again, but you won't be in town for a while. Six weeks after you meet, send them an email that says something like:
Hey $NAME -
You probably saw this already but it reminded me of one of the ideas you brought up, and I thought it framed $ISSUE in a useful way.
Hope you're doing great!
So what are the non-verbal and para-verbal signals here?
First, there are the things you didn't do: You didn't ask for a favor, and in fact, you didn't even ask for a response. There were absolutely zero question marks in your message.
Why is that great?
Because it's a no-obligation show of recognition, a very light-weight gift that leaves the door open to a correspondence, but requires none. To busy people, that can feel good. If they don't respond, who cares! Email them again in two months with another interesting link. You become that guy: Friendly, persistent, not creepy, but like a golden retriever! (Who doesn't love golden retrievers!?)
And that period of 6-8 weeks is also important. It's another signal that this engagement is light-weight.
To marketers, this might sound like a drip campaign. And it is … but with a difference. It's a highly personalized version of a drip campaign that has no near-term CTAs.
It's just trying to remind them that you’re **that guy**, the guy who knows about **that thing** they care about, so that the next time you're in town, you'll get some face time.
That's the difference between influence and sales. With sales, you close the deal. With influence, you get the meeting (and the intro after the meeting, and the next meeting, until years down the road, when you have a deal, someone actually cares).
(h/t to Mark Mullen for making me understand many of these things.)