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Expressing variety of emotions earns entrepreneurs funding

Brown eggs with different emotional facial expressions drawn on them.
Photo by Tengyart

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Putting on a happy face might not be enough for entrepreneurs to win over potential investors.

Despite perceptions that entrepreneurs should always be positive about their ventures, a study led by a Washington State University researcher found that entrepreneurs whose facial expressions moved through a mix of happiness, anger and fear during funding pitches were more successful.

“Our findings show that there’s a role for different emotions in pitches,” said Ben Warnick, WSU assistant professor in WSU’s Carson College of Business and lead author on the study published in the Journal of Business Venturing. “For example, an angry facial expression can convey how much you care about something, instead of just smiling, which on the extreme end can come off as insincere or overoptimistic. It’s good to balance that out. There are different reasons for using different expressions.”

Benjamin Warnick portrait
Ben Warnick

While previous research—and advice for entrepreneurs—has focused on using happy or positive attitudes in pitches, Warnick and his co-authors looked at several emotions: happiness, anger, fear and sadness.

For the study, the researchers analyzed nearly 500 pitch videos from the online crowdfunding site, Kickstarter. They used facial analysis software to code the presenters’ facial expressions for the four emotions as well as neutral expressions for every frame of each video. They measured the percentage of the pitch that the entrepreneurs expressed each emotion. Then, they compared the display of these emotional expressions with the ultimate success of the pitch by three measures: whether the entrepreneurs met their stated fundraising goal, total amount raised and how many people contributed.

The study showed that those who used a variety of three emotional expressions—happiness, anger and fear—had the most fundraising success. The only emotion that had a negative effect on funding was sadness.

In a qualitative analysis, the authors found that many successful entrepreneurs used different emotional expressions at different points in the pitch. For instance, many entrepreneurs would start their pitch in a happy way, introducing themselves and talking about how proud they are of their team. They would then use anger to talk about their determination or the problem they were trying to address. When the entrepreneurs talked about obstacles, the risk they were taking or need for resources, they would often use facial expressions conveying fear.

In contrast, people who expressed very little emotion on their faces did not do well in garnering funds even if the words they were saying were compelling. Entrepreneurs who stuck to just one emotion also did not do as well.

Yet there were limits to the use of emotion in pitches, even if it was varied.

“There’s a Goldilocks point where you can have too little or too much,” said Warnick. “Expressing happiness, anger and fear all promote funding up to a point. But if you express any one of these emotions too frequently, you’re hurting your funding prospects.”

This study only looked at the use of facial expressions. Warnick suggested that further research might look into other channels of expression or at the connection between what people actually feel and what they express, as the two don’t always align.

“Some people might be very expressive, where what they’re feeling on the inside shows quite readily to other people,” said Warnick.  “Others might be engaging in impression management, in other words, faking it.”

Media contacts:

  • Ben Warnick, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship, WSU Carson College of Business, 360-546-9765,
  • Sara Zaske, WSU News and Media Relations, 509-335-4846,

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