How Elizabeth Holmes used psychopathic body language on employees and investors

How did this 20-something convince Silicon Valley and the entire media landscape that she was, in fact, going to revolutionize the medicine?

HBO

Entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes is once again the center of attention but not for any good reasons. After rising to fame as the next big super young successful brilliant (turtleneck wearing) college dropout in Silicon Valley, the multi-million dollar fraud behind her game-changing healthcare company, Theranos, followed just a few years later.

And now, Holmes is getting the media treatment in the forms of podcasts, an HBO documentary, a book (“Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou) and even a film starring Jennifer Lawrence. A Hulu series can only be months away.


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It’s not surprising considering our culture’s obsession with scammers. January was officially the month of the Fyre Festival documentary and frankly, Holmes’s story makes Fyre look like a lousy cheese sandwich. So how did this “brilliant” 20-something convince multiple Silicon Valley legends as well as companies including Pfizer and the entire media landscape that she was, in fact, going to revolutionize the medical industry?

Well, as the book and documentary explain, there were many blatant lies and fraudulent activities committed. However, Holmes herself, like Fyre Festival and serial entrepreneur Billy McFarland, was an amazing storyteller and deceiver and most likely, a borderline sociopath.

They are both excellent at convincing people of things through manipulation and one of the ways Holmes did that was through her body language – and even changing some of her physical attributes.

Stare into my eyes

In Carreyrou’s book, he describes how Holmes would make unflinching (but probably somewhat disturbing) eye contact with her deep blue eyes when she was speaking with someone. This move made the person feel that they were the only human in the world while at the same time was completely intimidating.

Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”, wrote of sociopaths, “Their body language is convincing. Psychopaths lie to make themselves look good. But their nonverbal behavior is often so convincing – and distracting – that people don’t recognize they’re being deceitful.

A hypnotic combination

In addition to the staring tactic, Holmes also changed her voice.

Carreyrou wrote, that in combination with that unfaltering stare, “her voice added to the mesmerizing effect: she spoke in an unusually deep baritone.” It was absolutely hypnotic.

Former Theranos employees reported her sometimes slipping out of this low voice when she had a few too many drinks at a party and there are even some video clips of her real voice that still exist.

Morin also wrote that psychopaths, “speak slowly and quietly. Studies show psychopaths usually speak in a controlled manner. They don’t emphasize emotional words like other people do. Their tone remains fairly neutral throughout the conversation. Researchers suspect they craft a calm demeanor intentionally because it helps them gain more control in their personal interactions.”

She changed her voice to come off as more powerful as studies have shown that a lower voice is perceived as more authoritative. A recent study found that women actually have lower voices today than their grandmothers did because of shifting roles and power dynamics. Women’s voices have become lower as a result of survival of the fittest. And women in powerful positions changing their voices is actually an old story. Margaret Thatcher took elocution lessons and became the Prime Minister of England.

Jillian O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychology at Concordia University who studies how voices have influence, told The Cut, “This whole [Holmes] situation, the image manipulation, dressing like Steve Jobs, trying to sound a particular way — it sounds like an awful lot went into the facade. Some of the research we’ve worked on shows that when men and women deliberately lower their voices, it’s actually successful. They do sound more dominant. They do sound more likely to be someone who’s in a position of power.”

There is also a video of her doing an interview from a few years back in which she holds her left hand with her right when she is asked about press allegations that portrayed the company negatively. The self-hand holding is something one does to comfort themselves. She also breathed more and stuttered a bit during these intense questions.

Another example is this 2014 TED Talk in which she tells a beautiful story about how her company will revolutionize healthcare but never actually presents any lab or test results or really anything that has to do with science. John Brandon of Inc. wrote of this talk: “She used plenty of interesting factoids. She said words like engagementknowledge, and access. She shifted to a personal story. She lulled us, she calmed us. She talked about things we care about. That are quite seriousAnd yet, we were not really listening. She never really said anything about the science.”

Psychopaths are known for their charm and great storytelling capabilities. 

Learning to speak slower or removing “umms” and “likes” from your daily dialogue, especially if you are in a role that requires speaking to more than one person is one thing, but to completely change oneself to appear to be a completely different person that is doing anything to become more powerful is psychopathic.


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Meredith Lepore|is the Deputy Editor of Ladders and can be reached at mlepore@theladders.com.