Ian Whitworth gets scientific on how audience brains soak up your message.


Want to know how important the non-verbal side of your presentation is?
Let me give you some startling figures: communication is 55 per cent visual and 38 per cent vocal tone. The actual words spoken only make up seven per cent of the meaning your audience takes home from your speech. So 93 per cent of your message is non-verbal. It’s the vibe, man.

Gosh, what a startling fact! Better stop wasting your time finessing that script, and get to work on striding the stage like a colossus, fixing the audience with laser-like eye contact and honest open palm gestures. Unleash the giant within!
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this precise-sounding piece of scientific research, I’d… actually I do have that, it’s two and a half thousand dollars, so now I can afford to park at Sydney Airport for five days.

Despite the accurate-sounding numbers, the 55/38/7 per cent law is not quite total bollocks, but very close to it. Those figures represent one of the most widely misinterpreted academic studies ever. And a classic lesson that you shouldn’t always believe what you hear.
The results came from a 1967 paper by reputable UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian, titled ‘Decoding of Inconsistent Communications’. Those figures were indeed true, but only of this situation:

  • They studied the reactions of a single person to one word at a time. Not speeches to an audience.
  • The study only covered feelings and attitudes, not information.
  • Only women were tested.
  • Most importantly, the figures only applied when there was perceived conflict between the three elements.

So when someone says ‘I’m totally OK with what you said in that meeting’ in a flat voice while looking at the floor with sagging shoulders, there’s conflict. And the words are only a trivial part of the real message being conveyed here. Duh.
Obviously you would detect it quite easily, unless you were raised by wolves deep in the forest, with no human contact until you started your first job*.
It’s not rocket science. But it is science. And science shouldn’t be taken totally out of context.

Respect for science is not a concern of motivational speakers. That’s what TED’s for, and you don’t send your army of sales reps to TED to get them juiced up for another year in the trenches.
Anthony Robbins was one of the first to get the wrong end of this stick, and he’s still quoting 55/38/7 per cent as if it were a presentation breakthrough. And as most other motivators strip-mine Robbins’ stories for material, it’s everywhere.
It’s an anvil-sized chunk of irony that this interpretation error has spread universally as gospel truth via the confident body language, powerful vocal tone and dubious scripts of pro motivators.

Regrettably, there are few academic studies on verbal versus non-verbal applied to presentations and conferences. It’s been done in other fields. For example, research confirmed the valuable role that sympathetic body language plays for doctors conveying ‘distressing information’. Ideal reading for HR people then.
So by all means work on your non-verbal skills. Any serious presenter spends a lot of time working on eye-contact, standing up straight, opening their posture, pausing for effect, breathing from the diaphragm and all the other elements that make you look and sound good.

But don’t discount the words down to seven per cent. Words are important. Great phrases stick in the memory, spread beyond the walls of the auditorium, and change people’s thinking. Read JFK, Churchill, King and Keating, and soak up expressions that have stood the test of decades. With enough thought and effort, their ability to move people will start to appear in your own material. You don’t need to be declaring war on Germany, the right words are just as necessary to launch a new range of toasters.
Great non-verbal skills are vital, but with an unworthy script, you’re just putting deluxe wallpaper over the rising damp.

The other lesson to draw from this, of course, is to do a bit of research on anything you learn from success spruikers before you invest your heart, soul and cash in a course of action. I don’t want to kill your post-event buzz, but a bit of scientific scepticism will save you from all sorts of goofy alkaline-food diets, home forex trading kits and tax-effective llama farming.

*And haven’t we all worked with a few ex-wolf-children in our time?

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-owner of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email – ian@scenechange.com.au