Making an Impact – The Results

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 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.

"Your pizza, sir. Just the way you like it. 55% cheese, 38% pepperoni, 7% tomato sauce."
“Your pizza, sir. Just the way you like it. 55% cheese, 38% pepperoni, 7% tomato sauce.”

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  1. Nice post, John.
    One note… the 55/38/7 rule only applies when people are expressing emotion and there is a disconnect/incongruence between the three (as in your example). If everything is in sync, the words have a much higher impact … “I have a dream…!!!”
    Thanks for starting the conversation. Steve

  2. I’m not afraid to broach contentious issues, so maybe you can settle an argument between friends and myself?
    I want to make it known that I consider Adolf Hitler one of the most evil figures ever to have lived. However, he was an incredible public speaker, was he not? I tell this to friends and they presume that I am painting him in a good light – I assure you, the man was an evil blight on humanity. His public speaking however, was extremely good – agree?

    1. Cal,
      Thanks for the post and for raising the issue, delicate though it might be for some.
      I doubt that my say on the matter will settle things, but I have no hesitation in agreeing with you. One of the reasons for Hitler’s rise to power, in my opinion, was his skill at oratory. Of course, that was not the only reason. One has to look at Germany in the social, economic and political context in which it found itself in the 1930s. Though we can never be certain, one wonders whether Hitler would have been as popular underbdifferent circumstances.
      But back to your question. I see nothing wrong in saying that Hitler was a gifted public speaker. He was. Unfortunately, he used his gift in a way that was highly destructive. But the same could be said about lots of things: I could use a knife to stab someone I was robbing or I could use it to carve a beautiful wooden sculpture; atomic energy can be used to light up cities or level them to the ground – in each case, the thing is the same; it is the use to which it is put that makes the difference.
      Hope this helps.

  3. John,
    Really like the post and that you brought together some excellent references.
    Mehrabian’s claim was (as you rightly say) based on feelings, but also the numbers come from the situation where there is a mismatch between the aspects. If the 3 aspects don’t agree, then more weight is given to the visual cues. It is not a formula for general communication although (as Oestreich points out) Mehrabian is a little lax in his language at times. The Wikipedia article does talk a little about this misinterpretation.
    As an example, if a used-car salesperson is telling you about a “great car” with their arms crossed, which do you believe?

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