First of all, a big thank you to everyone who participated in the poll or who took the time to write a thoughtful comment, either here or on Linked In. The topic is clearly one of interest and it generated a lot of good discussion.
I confess that the question was somewhat unfair in that it obliged you to choose which aspect of a speech – verbal, visual or content – has the greatest impact on an audience. Many of you said that it is a combination of all three, and some of you even added one or two other factors. I share those views. But first, what prompted this poll?
The idea stemmed from the findings of a study by a UCLA Professor named Albert Mehrabian. A detailed analysis of that study is beyond the scope of this humble blog. In essence, however, Professor Mehrabian found that in face-to-face communications, people do not assign equal importance to the three aspects of speech mentioned above. In fact, he found that visual aspects (body language, facial expressions) account for 55% of the impact that a speaker makes. Verbal aspects (tone, voice inflection) account for 38% of the impact. Content (the words actually spoken) count for only a paltry 7%!
A classic example: Your friend returns from vacation and asks if you want to see the slides (do they even make slides anymore?) of his trip. You say, “Sure” in a mopey kind of way, while yawning and looking at your watch. Will he think that you are sincere? I doubt it.
But can this 55-38-7 “formula” be applied to all manner of public speaking? Well, no. An excellent 3-page article entitled “Let’s Dump the 55%, 38%, 7% Rule” by Professor Emeritus Herb Oestreich of San Jose State University is well worth a read in this regard. Even Professor Mehrabian himself acknowledged the limitations of his findings to very specific types of communications in which the communicator is expressing his feelings or attitudes.
As Professor Oestreich wrote, “it is normal for verbal and nonverbal cues to operate together”. He stressed that in communicating with others, all three cues – verbal, visual and content – are essential: “Words, tone of voice, and body language must not only be consistent with one another, they must actually support each other.”
And that is the real lesson here. All three aspects are important. You could have great content, but but if you stand rigidly behind the lectern, there is a chance that at least some of your message is going to be lost. Conversely, you could have great gestures and vocal variety, but if you are not saying anything of substance, you will come across as vapid and vacuous.
So, the next time you are preparing a presenation, by all means craft compelling content. But don’t stop there. Practise your delivery. Look for key words to emphasize by using vocal variety. If you are comfortable in doing so, step out from behind the lectern (but don’t forget the microphone if the room is large). Add natural gestures that will enhance your delivery. Engage the audience through the use of vivid stories. Remember, it’s about them, not you. If you can do these things, you will almost certainly be successful.
Now about that poll! As of the time of writing this post, there were 108 responses to the poll: 51 people (47%) said verbal was most important; 36 people (33%) said that visual was most important; and 21 people (20%) said that content was most important. Thus we have:
Mehrabian: 55% visual, 38% verbal, 7% content
Manner of Speaking poll: 33% visual, 47% verbal, 20% content
Interesting. And, on the whole, more balanced. And a balanced approach to public speaking, like a balanced diet, is very important.