Advanced Communication Skills Series Posted by David McDermott

If you have attended a training programme in communication skills you will most likely be familiar with a theory referred to as the 55%, 38%, 7% model developed by professor Albert Mehrabian. For those of you familiar with Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) you will definitely be familiar with this model. The theory suggests research has supposedly shown that only 7% of our communication is actually verbal with the further 93% consisting of non-verbal cues, namely 38% vocal tones, and 55% body language.

It is probably familiar to you if you have had some training in giving presentations, due to the fact that time and time again trainers relay this information, as if it is a universal truth based on empirical evidence, despite the fact that a little background research would highlight that it is not applicable.

The fact is, that the research is continually misused and misinterpreted. The original research was based around the conveyance of feelings, not expressing your point in a presentation. Mehrabian the psychology professor who proposed the model in the 1960’s, has himself expressed concern about how his model is frequently misused – something a good trainer should know before trotting out this model in a training session.

So what is the problem with trainers using this research?

The fact that the research has absolutely nothing to do with presenting or communicating in general. The research focused on how observers established feelings or attitudes were being conveyed when a single word was spoken. Therefore with limited content or context, observers had to depend on non-verbal cues to determine how much they liked the individual who was speaking.

When giving a presentation your audience should never have to depend on non-verbal cues to grasp your meaning. When we consider great speeches throughout history it is the words, the content, which we recall. It is content that resonates with people. Effective delivery assists in the process.

Churchill was once about to address the pupils of his former school when a war crisis occurred. He was expected to leave immediately but he decided to address the pupils as planned by saying, “Never, ever, ever give up” then walked off stage to attend the crisis. Here we have an example of a speech that was delivered over 60 years ago where 100% of the audience remember 100% of the content.

Why then do trainers continue to misuse this model?

It gives them a seemingly scientific basis on which to provide training based solely on body language, and devalue the actual content of a presentation. After all it is easier to train individuals to use open body language than to train them to create winning content. It suggests that verbal content can be disregarded, which is dangerous given the main purpose of a business presentation is to convey a message with credible content.

An integral part of producing an engaging presentation is having a well-researched methodology that clearly shows how to make content credible, relevant, engaging and memorable. It is important to remember that when it comes to pitching for business the main reason for elimination is when presenters talk too much about themselves (presenter focused content) rather than how they will solve an audience problem or meet their objectives (audience focused content). The best delivery will not address this fact. So why would anyone ignore content in these scenarios?

What can we learn from this?

  • Next time a training consultant uses these statistics please question their relevance and applicability. Ask yourself why they have chosen this ‘fact’ and whether what they are training you in is really as relevant as it seems.
  • Select a trainer who adopts a more balanced approach and can advise on both content and style. A more well-rounded trainer will result in more credible presentations.

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