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  • Writer's pictureWanda Wallace

Social Signals: How to use them to gain influence.

By Wanda Wallace

When we meet someone for the first time, we make a judgement about how much to trust that person. In a very old system, we are subconsciously sending out silent signals, in the same way that animals do. These are called “Honest Signals” by Sandy Pentland because they are honest, they can’t be faked such as when we get excited or scared, we have a nervous energy about us. They are things that we can’t hide.

When Sandy and his team compared visual signals to audio, they found that body language is redundant. Facial expressions can distract you from spotting the signals, but tone of voice is honest, you can tell if someone is upset, or angry.

Sandy has determined that there are 4 key types of honest signals: Activity, Mimicry, Consistency and Influence. I discussed with Sandy, how these signals appear in business and how they impact your ability to influence others.


Activity is energy or excitement. We talk faster, our bodies and hands are more animated and our movements are more rapid. Bees for example use Activity in the form of a waggle dance. When the scouts come back to the hive, they dance energetically to signal that they have found a good source of food. The bees who create the most Activity indicate the best food source.

SIGNAL 2: Mimicry

This is simply mirroring the actions of the person you are speaking with from body position, hand gesture or even just nodding your head in agreement. It’s how we echo back what a person has said. When we’re really interested in the subject matter, we lean in. Or, if we find ourselves not interested, or not in agreement, we might lean back in the chair instead.

Notice in a meeting how two people who are in sync in a conversation have very similar body postures. They will hold their hands in a similar way, lean on the table or sit back in the chair. As one moves, the other mimics him/her. This is a signal of agreement and similarity.

SIGNAL 3: Consistency

When someone is speaking confidently, you will notice that they are fluid in their delivery not unlike the fluidity shown in the movements of a professional ballerina. Also, their word choice is probably more sophisticated. We find ourselves thinking “this person is an expert” and they appear credible.

Sandy tells me that when you’re making a business plan, you should work on the delivery, not just content. If you can speak smoothly, with measured pauses, this will increase confidence in your abilities, and therefore influence other people’s perceptions of you.

SIGNAL 4: Influence

Influence moves the conversation in a desired direction by causing the other person’s speaking pattern to match their own. For example, how someone interrupts a conversation establishes a sense of control of the conversation.

Sandy tells me that there is a gender difference in interruptions. In his research, men and women speak about equal amounts and interrupt each other equally. However, men appear to be driving the conversation because of the way they interrupt. “You can’t teach people how to do this, but you can become more aware of it”. There seems to be a solidarity among women, we won't interrupt each other very much, and if we do, it’s a positive interruption.


Paying attention to these signals is a great way to read the room. Good negotiators always bring someone to “read the room”. They usually sit behind the negotiator and pass notes to alert them of unusual behaviour.

In high-end negotiations, a meal is often included, so these signals can be assessed in a different environment. From this, you can see how someone treats others or how generous they are. You can examine these four types of social signal to predict outcomes like salary negotiation or successful business pitches. Sandy conducted a study relating to salary negotiations, and his team could predict the salary to within a thousand dollars, just by watching the signals.

Successful salary negotiations began with mimicry and shifted to be more fluid and consistent in speech. When asserting say the reasons for deserving an increase. By doing this, the person signalled an understanding of the boss’s needs and an agreement with the boss while staying confident in expressing their own position as in “hey, I’m here to help – But, I have to have these things”. This was the winning strategy every time.


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