Professor Albert Mehrabian’s 1967 study of communication concluded that 55% of the presenter’s message was received visually, 38% from voice tone and only 7% through the words. As we all know, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, and these numbers have been widely misinterpreted.
As a result, a number of gurus and pseudo-experts have built businesses around emphasising the importance of how we look when we present. Thus, according to this misplaced logic, how we look accounts for more than half of the impression of how we come across, so pay careful attention to dress, etc.
Nearly 50 years ago, Mehrabian flagged an issue that has reached epidemic proportions today—audience distraction. In his day, he was worried about factors that might compete with the key point we were trying to get across. His research showed that this 55/38/7 split only applied under one very critical condition.
When what we are saying is not congruent with how we are saying it, the audience leaves us. They go off message and get distracted by our dress and appearance in 55% of the cases. Others are no longer listening to what we are saying, but to how we are saying it. So 38% are focused on how we sound, our voice qualities, our accent, our pronunciation, etc. When there is an incongruence between what we are saying and the delivery, only 7% of the words are registering with our audience.
When we say “incongruent”, what do we mean? In some societies, family members being interviewed by television reporters after losing loved ones in a tragedy are smiling while talking to camera. This is a painful moment, yet they are smiling. In these cultures, this is accepted as a polite way to not burden others with their personal, heartfelt grief. For the rest of us, this is incongruent. What we would expect is a face contorted with sadness, tears rolling down cheeks and a voice barely audible and breaking up under the strain. In the same way, a happy event greeted with a long, sad face would not be congruent.
What and how
Mehrabian’s work tells us that when we don’t match what we say with how we say it, we lose our audience. It wouldn’t matter how well dressed we were, we wouldn’t be able to maintain attention to what we are saying. No matter how stentorian or lilting, pleasant and professional our speaking voice, the key message is still being lost.
Wooden faces devoid of expression are precisely the target for Mehrabian’s research results. People with these are often the experts in their fields and they rely on their reputation and authority to carry the day. They are heavyweights and their faces are ever serious, never smiling. The problem is they are only able to manage one facial expression throughout their presentation, regardless of the content.
Not every sentence in a presentation is of such heavyweight seriousness. Consequently, the audience leaves their message. And to add to that dilemma, it is so easy to escape the presenter today, thanks to powerful handheld devices allowing us instant access to the online world.
We need to have highs and lows in our presentations. Serious and light moments, complex and simple components of the message. Each of these requires a face and voice of its own that is in sync with the content. Of course we should be dressed appropriately for the occasion, but we need to make our face and voice do the work, not the suit, blouse, tie or shoes.
If the topic is serious, be serious, but be prepared to ease off the pressure from the constant seriousness. It is exhausting for an audience—they need a break or you will lose them.
Meanwhile, if we are flippant and light all the time, we will not be providing enough variety for our audience at the other end of the scale. Telling jokes and repeating witticisms constantly for 40 minutes is not a substitute for a well-designed presentation, unless you are a professional comedian and that is your trade.
If we focus on being congruent when we speak, then we will be more successful in getting our message across to our audience. That 7% number will flip to become close to 100%, and that is what we want.
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