After college, JJ Xu wanted to be an entrepreneur. She had the passion, but she felt she lacked the people and management skills required to run a business, so JJ took a job working for someone else at a large technology firm.
After a few years in the corporate world JJ surprised friends and family by quitting her well-paying job and going back to school.
“I don’t think you can make progress if you’re staying within your comfort zone.”
JJ enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s full time MBA program. As a part of her studies, she surveyed her CMU classmates, asking them to rank the most valuable resources they believed the MBA program offered. Communication training was the top answer.
Studies show that 85 percent of an individual’s future financial success depends on that person’s communication skills. Companies in the United States spend billions annually on communication training for employees. At the same time, people who don’t have access to communication training are likely to face a more difficult path to career advancement.
Intrigued by the survey reposes, JJ began to investigate the communication training market. It was enormous, but highly fragmented and the model had remained the same for years. Almost all the firms used human coaches and in-person training sessions.
“I thought there’s great opportunity for us to disrupt this huge market.”
In most training scenarios, individuals gave brief presentations to a coach who then evaluated the session using a rubric or a scoring guide with predetermined parameters for grading the responses. Evaluations were heavily focused on the individual’s speaking style rather than content. Xu learned that during evaluations its assumed that you know what you are talking about, so the coaches look at how you communicate, more than what you know.
Having worked in technology, JJ was familiar with micro-electronics and artificial intelligence. She was confident that artificial Intelligence (AI) could provide the same feedback as a human coach. She formed TalkMeUp, an AI based software company focused on communication training.
Sample of TalkMeUp evaluation feedback screen
TalkMeUp’s computer-based coaching system evaluates using the same criteria as a human judge – are you engaging, speaking clearly, maintaining eye contact, and other factors. The difference is when using the TalkMeUp coaches, clients don’t have to schedule an appointment for an evaluation. They can receive coaching anywhere, anytime, because everything is online and on demand. TalkMeUp is also less expensive.
“You can just pick one scenario, for example a job interview. Tell me about yourself and then just simply speak to the camera and that will give you instant feedback.”
Whether practicing for a job interview or a class presentation, users simply log in to the TalkMeUp website and give a short presentation into their computer’s camera. TalkMeUp then evaluates the presentation for the speaker’s pacing, enthusiasm, nervousness, and eye contact. Feedback is returned immediately and also saved to the TalkMeUp servers. If users take the test again, they can see where they are improving and where work still needs to be done.
TalkMeUp is already being recognized for its value as a corporate training method. The service is being used in pilot studies with three Pittsburgh -based non-profit organizations and a law firm. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business is also using TalkMeUp to help students improve their job interview and presentation skills. TalkMeUp is planning on launching a new version in 2019 and then begin marketing to more businesses.
JJ Xu is quick to credit the resources she found at CMU with preparing her to be an entrepreneur. When asked what advice she has for aspiring entrepreneurs, she doesn’t mince words.
“Follow your dream. Go do what you have to do.”
JJ Xu had a great paying job, but it didn’t fulfill her entrepreneurial spirit, so she quit and enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
JJ Xu: I don’t think you can make progress if you’re staying within the comfort zone.
JJ soon learned that 85 percent of a persons’ career success depends on communication skills. But coaching sessions were hard to schedule and expensive, until JJ had an idea….
JJ Xu: Why don’t we just try to use artificial intelligence to equip every user with a smart coach so that people don’t have to pay a lot of money to get you know human coaching?
JJ launched TalkMeUp. Users practicing for a class speech or a job interview can present directly to their computer anytime, day or night. TalkMeUp’s online coach then provides an instant critique of the presentation, evaluating things like pace, enthusiasm, and eye contact… and offering tips on how to improve.
JJ Xu: Every time you practice, we monitor your learning trajectory on our backend so that you know whether you are making progress.
Carnegie Mellon is already using TalkMeUp to help its business students with job interview and presentation training, and helping JJ be the entrepreneur she always wanted to be.
Turning researchers, hackers, hustlers, designers … into successful entrepreneurs. The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University is a system of programs and activities that offers a unique path of entrepreneurship education, engagement, collaboration and opportunity — for a truly transformative learning experience.