You may not recognise the name, but Albert Mehrabian authored some of the most famous studies in communications research. His most well-known hypothesis: When two people communicate face-to-face, how much of the meaning is communicated verbally, and how much is communicated non-verbally?
First published in 1971, his research is almost a quaint idea today, considering that a lot of organisational and personal communications uses decidedly non-face-to-face methods such as new, social and digital media.
But despite using Twitter, Facebook, blogs to communicate – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – there’s something in Mehrabian’s research that is as relevant now as it was 40 years ago.
Let’s say you’re part of a typical audience. The next speaker shuffles uncomfortably toward the podium. He takes a bit longer than usual to get himself settled, organising his notes, fiddling with his too-tight tie, and clearing his throat over and over. Finally, after emitting a long painful sigh, he looks up and over his smudgy glasses, squints into the darkness, and after an embarrassingly long pause, says in a tight fearful voice:
“I’m very excited to be here today as I have some important conclusions from my research that will change how we think about today’s topic.”
Note the dissonance. Would you believe what he said (his verbal communications)? Or would you believe how he acted (his nonverbal communications)?
Mehrabian’s research found that audience’s perceptions – the combination of feelings, attitudes and understanding – are guided by three parts of face-to-face communications, sometimes called the 3 V’s.
Of the total message …
- 55% of this nervous man’s message came from your perception of his face and body (or Visual)
- 38% of the message came from the way he said his words (or Voice)
- Just 7% came from the words alone (or Verbal
If you take these figures on face value alone, it suggests that the receiver (the audience) overwhelmingly trusts the non-verbal aspects of the speaker: 93% vs. 7%. In other words, as an audience member, you trust what you see and hear, more than you trust the actual words.
From a speaker’s point-of-view, this means a couple of things.
There’s an important difference between writing your words and presenting your words. They’re complementary – but very different – skills. Writing is editing everything you know about a topic down to information you put in a report or, increasingly, a slide. Presenting is taking that information and distilling it to one message, with supporting facts or opinion. You aren’t ready to present until you can look at a slide, turn away and tell someone else the singular message of that slide, without hesitation and in one breath.
You cannot read your slides to the audience. The audience reads your slides faster than you can aloud. You’re not only annoying (it’s hard to read when you’re saying the same thing), but it’s disrespectful. After saying the key message (which is essentially the title of the slide), you must talk about the slide: add your opinion, support it with a bit of detail, give us context understand why your message is important to remember. There’s also significant research now that shows conclusively that you do not help people remember your messages by reading them; in fact, you do the opposite. They’re far more likely to forget more quickly what you said when you read your slides.
You must know how you come across in a business situation. Part of presentation skills training must involve being filmed giving a typical presentation in your typical style. To analyse it, you – and the trainer – should review it objectively, meaning you must pretend you do not know this person.
- Turn off the sound and watch the person. What do you think of the person? Are they believable? Why, or why not?
- Turn away from the screen and listen to the person. How’s the voice? Is it strong? Does it have variation? Is it too fast, or too soft?
- Listen only to the person’s words. Is what this person say make sense? Is there logic and flow?
- Ask for candid or anonymous comments. You might take the added step by having people provide you with their perceptions, so you can continue to learn (and improve) both your skills and your objectivity.
Isolate improvements in each area. Use these to rehearse on your own, returning in a day or two to be re-filmed so you can see where and how this person has improved.
At the end of the day, if you are presenting at a critical meeting – either in a large auditorium, or from the head of a table at a small team meeting – you should give some thought to bringing all three elements of Mehabrian’s research together into one seamless and polished package. Otherwise, that recommendation, hypothesis or Big Idea, won’t be approved. And where does that leave you and your career?
Have a question about presentation skills training? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any other thoughts on how you’d apply Mehrabian’s research? How else do you rehearse to ensure all three elements come together in one credible package?