Want to Learn to Talk?

Some experts are reporting Gen Zers have badly under-developed face-to-face communication skills after growing up interacting with their friends more via text than talking together in groups.

Start-up Ambit offers a new app for that, which is already being used in some Top 10 business schools, including Harvard. We all know schools like Harvard and Stanford are too busy teaching finance to instruct students in how to manage people. Now it seems some realize they should at least start by teaching them how to communicate properly with them.

The company was spun out of the famous Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where a one-time HCM executive had been president for years. Steve Ciesinski was CEO (though not founder) of one of the two original ATS systems, Resumix, until it was acquired by HotJobs! and then Yahoo! Guess they needed another exclamation point.

He surprised me by explaining SRI had been carved out of Stanford during the Vietnam War in the early ’70s because of its Defense Department work, much of it on DARPA, what many consider the predecessor to the internet. Now, SRI is a $500-million research and development company on a 64-acre campus in Menlo Park, Calif., just up the hill from Stanford.

Its corporate counterpart, Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), gets all the press because of Steve Jobs first seeing the mouse and a graphical user interface there.

Ambit started development using voice technology SRI already owned called Nuance. Ambit first records an online or live meeting–the first with a non-exclusive partnership with Zoom, and the second via your smart phone. A software vendor partner then automatically creates a full written transcript, Ambit analyzes both the voices and the words in a half-dozen fascinating ways and then delivers individual coaching advice to each participant.

So, it’s an assessment and development tool that eventually might be perfect for service firms hiring thousands of kids every year right out of college and many others.

Right now, Ambit requires people to run through a structured talking exercise to do all this. But CEO and Founder Greg Lok is recruiting early adopters with at least 50 employees willing to use Ambit to prove out his vision of the tool working in any kind of meeting, as well as being an individual development aid.

“Now, only the top 1% of corporate employees get any coaching,” Lok says. “We want anyone to use this to get better at communicating and provide access to everyone.”

Lok taught me a new Silicon Valley word: “prosumer.” That’s a corporate professional who brings software, like Slack, into a company themselves and use it to get their work done, long before the company actually buys an enterprise version. A great business model for cutting down sales costs, if it works.

Separately, Hollywood has an oxymoronic phrase: a “high-concept” movie. A standard pitch for one goes something like this: “So this new movie will be just like Harry Potter, only the kids are all studying to become … accountants!”

Despite that, I’ve already forgiven Lok for describing Ambit as “the Fitbit for conversations.” Connecting something new to something older, well-known and successful always makes it easier to sell–and sometimes to understand, and he wants to emphasize the individual nature of it.

Here are some details of what Ambit does.

Obviously, a group meeting first requires creating a voice profile for each participant, or how will the software ever know who’s talking? Even when a human transcribes an audio tape, you’ve got to provide people’s names and point to at least one example of each one speaking, right?

The first report, called “Airtime,” details the percent of time each person spoke during the meeting. Interesting stuff here to be learned about diversity and inclusion.

But it gets a lot more interesting when it becomes “Role-Based Conversation” and correlates participants’ average airtime to their seniority, roles or titles. Is the meeting leader lecturing, questioning or listening?

The report on “Turn Taking” is somewhat graphically complicated. The idea is to show who is talking when; who is overlapping (or talking over) whom; and generally how the group members interacted with one another and how engaged they were.

“Remote vs. In-Person” compares the turns and airtime of those in the room versus those on the phone or using telepresence or meeting software. If the remotes get the most, they should have flown in for the meeting, in my opinion.

I love the “Talking Speed” report, especially after years of writing scripts and estimating that New Yorkers talk about 160-170 words per minute and normal people about 150 or fewer. Ambit issues a report for each person with WPM measured at several intervals during the meeting and declares that 150 is normal. Agreed, except for the new Southern version.

If only the world would heed the “Brevity” report, which offers the average length of each time someone speaks. I think it’s way off the mark thinking 15 seconds is ideal–not enough time to clear my throat! But I never thought I could do a five-minute video, either.

The “Tone” report is tricky. That’s where the software analyzes the words in the transcript, in addition to applying acoustic language processing. It assigns each person to one of seven different tones, ranging from joyous and confident to tentative and analytical. The simplest point here for leaders is you probably get more out of people in a meeting by not making them fearful. Know anyone who needs that advice?

There is advice on every report, both for individuals and the group, and it’s different according to the scores. But at the moment, it’s pre-written and canned, much like the marvelous management advice in Marcus Buckingham’s Standout software, now owned by ADP. No sin there.

But Lok’s roadmap naturally is for feedback to become more customized. “Right now, we benchmark one person against another,” he says, “but in the future we hope to be able to follow individuals from meeting to meeting and aggregate their performance and start to identify patterns. [It] could be simple things like asking more questions or letting other people speak more. We definitely plan to layer on a lot more intelligence.”

Then maybe we’ll all learn to talk better to each other, which sometimes means listening, of course!


Bill Kutik
HR Technology columnist Bill Kutik, as chairman emeritus, is at the 22nd Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in Las Vegas, Oct. 1-4, 2019. Watch Kim Billeter, the new Americas Lead for EY HR advisory group (PAS), discuss the question: Why is Cloud adoption taking so long? Just six minutes for the current video episode of Firing Line with Bill Kutik®. Bill can be reached at [email protected]