These 3 Speech Patterns Will Immediately Reveal If a Candidate is a Star or a Low Performer

January 12, 2017

If your job candidate is constantly speaking in the present and future tense during the interview, you may want to pump the brakes. Why? Because this is a signal that you are talking to a low performer.

As it turns out, high performers actually speak differently than low performers. And, this is great news because when you know the differences you can apply that "word data" to make better hiring decisions.

Textual analysis is still considered “rocket science” in much of the corporate world, but as early adopters of this fascinating science, my Hiring for Attitude research team has actually analyzed the language and grammar of hundreds of thousands of real-life candidates responding to interview questions to assess the differences in language usage between high and low performers.

As a result, we know things like whether high performers primarily use the past or future tense in their answers, what kinds of pronouns and adverbs low performers choose, and so much more. The following are just a few of our ‘Holy Cow!’ findings regarding three of the big textual categories: Pronouns, Tense and Voice.


First Person Pronouns: High performer answers contain roughly 60% more first-person pronouns (e.g. I, me, we) than answers given by the low performer answers (the ones in the Warning Signs category).

Second Person Pronouns: Low performer answers contain about 400% more second person pronouns (e.g. you, your) than high performer answers.

Third Person Pronouns: Low performer answers use about 90% more third person pronouns (e.g. he, she, they) than high performer answers.

Neuter Pronouns: Low performer answers use 70% more neuter pronouns (e.g. it, itself) than high performer answers.

The data here clearly shows that high performers talk about themselves using first-person pronouns a lot more than low performers do. High performers might say something like: “I called the customer on Tuesday and I asked them to share their concerns…”  Whereas a low performer might say: “Customers need to be contacted so they can express themselves…” or: “You should always call the customer and ask them to share…”

The reason high performers talk about themselves is because they’ve got lots of great experiences to draw from. But low performers don’t have those great experiences, and thus are more likely to give abstract or hypothetical answers that merely describe what “you” should do. Research has also found that when people lie, they often use more second and third person pronouns because they’re subconsciously disassociating themselves from the lie.

The lesson here is to listen very carefully to whether candidates are talking about “I” and “me”--which is good--or if they’re talking about “you,” “he” and it”--which is not so good.


Past Tense: Answers from high performers use 40% more past tense than answers from low performers.

Present Tense: Answers from low performers use 120% more present tense than answers from high performers.

Future Tense: Answers from low performers use 70% more future tense than answers from high performers.

Our research shows that when you ask high performers to tell you about a past experience, they will actually tell you about that past experience. And, quite logically, they will use the past tense to do it. By contrast, low performers will answer your request to describe a past experience with lots of wonderfully spun tales about what they are (present tense) doing, or what they will (future tense) do. Unlike high performers, they can’t tell you about all those wonderful past experiences because they simply don’t have them.

So, for instance, when asked to describe a difficult customer situation, high performers will respond with an example stated in the past tense. Something like: “I had a customer who was having issues with her server and was about to miss her deadline.”  By contrast, low performers are more likely to express their response in the present or future tense. Something like: “When a customer is upset the number one rule is to never admit you don’t know the answer” or “I would calm an irrational person by making it clear I know more than they do.”

It’s also interesting to note that much of the time, present and future tenses are accompanied by second and third person pronouns (“you, he, she, they, did…”), whereas the past tense is linked to the first person pronoun (“I, me, we, did…”).


Passive Voice: Low performer answers use 40-50% more passive voice than high performer answers.

In the Active Voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action, e.g. “Bob likes the CEO.” Bob is the subject, and he is doing the action: he likes the boss, the object of the sentence. Another example is: “I heard it through the grapevine.”  In this case, “I” is the subject, the one who is doing the action. "I" is hearing "it," which is the object of the sentence.

In the Passive Voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying: “Bob likes the CEO,” the passive voice says: “The CEO is liked by Bob.” The subject of the sentence becomes the CEO, but she isn't doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Bob’s liking. The focus of the sentence has changed from Bob to the CEO. For the other example, we’d say “It was heard by me through the grapevine.”

Notice how much more stilted the Passive Voice sounds; it’s kind of awkward. It’s also affected, meaning it’s often used by people trying to sound smart (especially smarter than they actually are). To be sure, there are academic types who rely more on the passive voice, and academe has higher concentrations of this rhetorical style. But more often than not, super-smart people will speak directly, with the Active Voice. This issue is not a deal breaker, but you should be on the lookout for people who use the Passive Voice as an affectation to appear smarter than they are. 

Textual analysis is truly a revolutionary idea that allows us to listen to candidates’ language and assess whether they’re headed towards the high or low performer camps.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a NY Times bestselling author, and a sought-after speaker on leadership. Check out Mark’s latest Leadership Styles Quiz to see what kind of leader you are.

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