When Body Language Is Not That Important
There’s this myth “out there” that body language is more important than your words in conveying a message. I recently heard this myth reinforced by a speech pathologist and public speaking coach, who proclaimed on a podcast available through her website that there is a “well-known statistic out there by [sic] behavioural psychologist Dr. Mehrabian” regarding information presented to groups.
She then went on to state that Dr. Mehrabian had found that delivery and body language follow the rule of 55% of communication of meaning being visual, 38% being determined by the tone and delivery and only 7% by the words themselves.
That would be fascinating and extremely useful – if any of it were true. What is wrong with the contention that this coach and many others make that Mehrabian discovered that it’s not what you say, but how you say it that is most important?
- Dr. Albert Mehrabian never studied people speaking to groups in a public speaking/presenting situation, as the references to his work suggest. Mehrabian studied people who were mostly not conversing but a) listening to single isolated words in a lab setting, in order to discriminate positive or negative emotions, and b) examination in a lab setting of black and white photographs accompanied by tape recordings in order to determine contributions of differing communication inputs. Neither of these situations is generalizable to conversations, public speaking or presenting or any other host of real-world situations.
- Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 formula was based on combining the results – at a guess – of the two studies just mentioned. That is not a finding, not a statistic, but a postulation. There never was any proof.
Undoubtedly tone, intonation, dynamics, body language and facial expression all send a message that influences the interpretation of our language. But to contend that it is the primary means of communication is illegitimate – just ask my daughter’s speech therapist. My youngest daughter communicates primarily through limited gestures, indistinct sounds and facial expression. And it is extremely difficult to understand her without words! When she uses the few at her command, it is the difference between night and day.
Why do people continue to perpetuate this myth? Perhaps it’s a lack of understanding of how research is generated and conducted. Perhaps it is a case of merely accepting the prevailing point of view. Or perhaps it is easier to focus on these other behaviours – it’s not as difficult or demanding as generating ideas, refining them, considering word choice for your audience and speaking in a way that combines intellect with passion and emotion in a coherent and persuasive manner. Some coaches and speakers often seem to thrive instead on “Say it louder” and “Put your hands here”, rather than the deeper meaning and connection you have with your audience. That’s why we have such a paucity of authentic, powerful speakers in the public arena.
"Perhaps it is easier to focus on these other behaviours – it’s not as difficult or demanding as generating ideas, refining them, considering word choice for your audience and speaking in a way that combines intellect with passion and emotion in a coherent and persuasive manner."
There’s a very simple way to test this body language myth: try acting out Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the words. Surely you can get 93% of the meaning across without all that wordy stuff?! (Need I be more facetious?)
Mehrabian himself decries the misuse of his studies by people who have misconstrued his findings and theories. (You can visit his website at www.kaaj.com/psych for some basic comments.) He points out that his studies were concerned very specifically with like and dislike, varieties of attitudes, not core meaning. In other words, the nuances can be affected and sometimes contrary body language and facial expressions can convey an outright contradiction to the words. Thus, pulling a sad face while speaking happy words may mean that I am being ironic, sarcastic or conflicted.
You may have equally seen Hamlet performed by an actor using different tone and posture and thus making you think of the meaning slightly differently than you had before. But Shakespeare also deliberately wrote with some ambiguity of meaning. The actors’ cues, their relationship in space, their actions on stage all help the audience to understand the director’s take on the meaning. However, the non-verbal communication cannot replace the language itself, except to a very limited extent. And this is what Mehrabian found: when there is ambiguity or lack of context, the non-verbal aspects contribute significantly to our perception of attitude, deception and inconsistency.
Be careful of coaches who say that if you have just the right combination of body language and dynamics that you will magically transform your audience’s responses – the quality of your ideas, character and integrity will count for far more. There are plenty of glib, good-looking political candidates in the US election campaigns with all the "right" body language, but none of the substance. The old phrase, “Your actions speak louder than words” is true. But your words should also strive to reflect your good actions.
Instead of focusing on all the externals: where you stand, how you are oriented, what your face is doing, focus first on the internals – your ideas and proofs; your motivations, values and goals; language that denotes, connotes and emotes; meaning-rich language that connects with your audience. Then you can deliver it in a way that reinforces, but does not replace, your message.
- Peter J. McLean
Rotary Productivity-Driven Leadership Breakfast Presentation
I spoke at the Rotary Club Crawley during November and enjoyed the tremendous dynamism of this group.
During a conversation afterwards with its founder, David Goldstone, I was all the more impressed with what this group has achieved. A few key statistics: over 70 new members in less than 2 years, 50/50 male/female split and over 16 members in their early 20s, thousands of dollars and numerous hours contributed to the community. That's a different profile from the typical Rotary Club.
David pointed to one of the keys to the success of this group: Aiming for the Goal - developing business people of all ages who are committed to contributing back to the community - rather than the trappings and rituals of Rotary. That is, the product they are attempting to create is more important. There is great leadership at work here!
You can find more details about this Rotary group at www.rotarycrawley.org.au and if you would like to contribute, just tell them you heard about them here...
2012 Workshops Schedule
Our current 2012 Workshops Schedule is finalised.
Authentic Speaking Workshops
We are running three courses of Authentic Speaking Public Speaking Workshops this year:
1. Authentic Speaking Foundations Workshop. This is our 2-Day Foundations workshop - appropriate for those looking to set a great foundation and become a more confident speaker. It is for people from small business owners or general staff through to executives who need to work on their confidence and get started in speaking. Dates: Mar 5-6, May 17-18, Aug 13-14, Nov 5-6 2012
2. Authentic Speaking Refresher Workshop - Bringing Your Stories to Life. By popular request (isn't that fun to say?), I am offering a 1-day Refresher course for Authentic Speaking graduates. The focus of this workshop is on developing a store of powerful stories to convey different values and to use for different purposes. I will take you through a process to develop them and to bring them to life and we will add further dynamism to your speech and delivery. I will also be surveying graduates of the Foundations workshop regarding their current speaking needs, to ensure that this Workshop continues to boost your speaking to another level. Date: 28 May 2012
3. Authentic Speaking Executive Leaders Workshop. A 2-Day Workshop for Executives and Senior Leaders who are already confident and have regular exposure as speakers, but need to focus on how to present their own personal and organisational brand strongly and powerfully. This 2-Day Workshop will only be held once in 2012 and will be structured to allow peers to discuss communication needs at senior leadership levels. Dates: July 30-31 2012
Visit www.authenticspeaking.com.au for workshop details or email email@example.com for enrolment forms.
Productivity-Driven Leadership Experience
We have been working on this 2.5 day Leadership Experience for quite some time: Designed to bring together dynamic senior leaders who want to transform their leadership and results, this Leadership Experience will be part retreat, part workshop, part milestone experience. We have been in discussions with US Management Schools to use cutting edge resources in Positive Psychology and are also bringing to bear our own research in professional giftedness, plus our experience in leadership and personal development built up over three different continents.
We already have some people who have expressed their desire to participate and have expressed their desire for certain objectives and content that they would like to see incorporated. I will be putting out a call for Expressions of Interest in the coming weeks.
We are planning on holding this at a Perth-based resort in the first half of 2012 and will be including recreation and a sumptuous celebratory three-course lunch on the final day.
Socratic Dialogues - Using Questioning to Create Change
Mary is running this 2-day workshop, first created for BHP Billiton Iron Ore's Rapid Growth Implementation Team to help them use this specialised skill - using Socratic Dialogues - to lead others to change their mindsets and results. A tremendous workshop (especially for technical specialists), it divorces you from didactic and unproductive forms of communication and helps you to lead people to inevitable conclusions that create change. She's a Master Teacher and it's incredibly enjoyable and productive. Dates: June 4-5 2012
Activating Your Gifts At Work - Becoming a High Performer
Based on my original research into professional giftedness, this 2-Day workshop helps you to identify your pre-eminent gifts and talents and how to develop them, hone them and apply them in your own work. We examine how to craft your job for better results and how to seek out and develop the gifts and talents in those around you so that you can develop high performance teams. This is an experiential and experimental workshop, so I will need keen and enthusiastic participants ready to contribute to this experience. Dates: June 18-19 2012
Personally Speaking - High Performing Teams, High Performing Leadership
For my birthday last week, my wife took me to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra at the Perth Concert Hall. With the best acoustics in any performance venue in Australia, the WASO performed admirably under the direction of Principal Conductor Paul Daniel. The program included two world premieres of original compositions, a performance of Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" and Mozart's Mass in C Minor with the WASO Chorus. The performances were sublime (and it didn't hurt that Perth Soprano Sara Mcliver was magnificent in the lead role in Mozart's Mass).
A friend performing in the WASO Chorus invited us up for drinks afterwards, where we heard remarks by patron Janet Holmes a Court and the Conductor. Paul Daniel is a highly enjoyable conductor to watch. Having performed in chorales many times over the years and conducted a couple of groups myself, I find him engaging, precise and invigorating. It's obvious in the comments he made to the orchestra and chorus afterwards that he LOVES what he does and is excited by it. It's infectious.
This is an example of leadership and powerful communication at work - the conductor leads the energy, precision and talents of a couple of hundred highly skilled (and potentially diva-ish) performers. The musicians are people who have dedicated their lives to their art - and it's not the income they can earn that's driving their quest for perfection and expression. The hundred-plus singers are people who have volunteered their time and energy to singing just for the joy of it. And all responded to the direction of this one man: through his practice with them, instructions, knowledgeability and communication of the vision he's guiding them towards; leading them from the front of the stage, in this one moment, to bring together all their work and create something extraordinary.
That's great performance - from team and leader alike.
Thanks for your comments.