Presenting an Urban Myth

The objective for most business presentations to is educate and influence people, while at the same time providing some entertainment to keep them interested.  To achieve this, the audience must understand what you are saying.  There are three aspects to understanding what someone is saying:
  • Vocal
  • Verbal
  • Visual

The standard percentages that are often quoted in relation to public speaking, are that 7% of the information is conveyed verbally, 38% vocally, and 55% visually. These percentages have become an urban myth, propagated by presentation trainers and voice coaches around the world. 

These percentages are not only misleading, for business presentations they are wrong.  The origins of these figures are two separate studies, one conducted by Albert Mehrabian and Susan Ferris (1967) which compared vocal tone to facial cues, and the other by Mehrabian and Wiener (1967) which compared vocal tones to single words. 

Mehrabian himself says "My findings are often misquoted.  Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message." 

However, that said, the way you say something has a tremendous affect on the way the words are received and the visual stimuli have yet another affect.  Most importantly, all three communication mechanisms, verbal, vocal and visual, must be in line with each other and re-enforce each other. Imagine someone telling you their new product was the most exciting new innovation since sliced bread, in a dull monotone voice while they look at the floor. Would you believe them?

Although the percentages may not be accurate the relative importance is spot on. The way you say something has more impact than the words you choose, and what people see while you say it has even more impact. Many people put all their effort into working out what they are going to say in a presentation and hardly any effort in to how they are going to say those words or what their audience is going to see.

Verbally

Are the words that you are using easily understood by your audience?  Try to avoid jargon and slang.  Follow the KISS principle, decide what your main message should be and stick to it.  Do not confuse the issue with a number of smaller less imported side issues, which do not support your main theme.  They may be interesting points but if they are tangential to the rest of your presentation, they are best avoided. 

Vocally

Can your audience hear you?  Are you talking loudly enough?  Are you talking too loudly?

 Talking too loudly can be as frustrating for the audience as someone who talks too quietly.  I remember one sales training presentation I attended where the speaker felt he had to shout to make his points.  The first couple of times he shouted everyone paid attention, the next couple of items people started to become irritated and from then on, everybody switched off and did not listen to a thing he was saying. 

As well as the volume, try to enunciate clearly and do not mumble.  Put some feeling into your voice rather than just reciting information in a monotone.  By varying the pitch, tone and volume of our voice, you will capture people’s attention and they will understand you better. 

If you are unsure of how to put that sort of feeling into your voice, practise by reading young children stories from their books.  Most people become more animated when doing this. 

Visually

What the audience sees has to reinforce what they are being told, and how they are being told it.  If you were told by the managing director that the company was doing really well and it was destined to break all its targets, while he was slouching about with a face as long as a wet weekend.  Would you believe him? 

Your visual aids, e.g. PowerPoint slides, should illustrate the points that you are making verbally, they shouldn’t just be a list of bullet points but convey some added value. 

Remember, all three aspects must corroborate each other.  Having either of them contradicting what you are saying will ruin the communication. 

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