Understanding An Urban Myth ( 55% / 38% / 7% is Wrong)

Graham Young

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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, 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. The single word used was “maybe”.

    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. What to aim for is having all three communication mechanisms, verbal, vocal and visual, to be in line with each other and to re-enforce each other.

    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 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.

    Next time you hear a presentation coach reeling off the percentages 55%, 38% and 7%, it maybe time to ask them if they know what they are talking about.

    Graham Young runs Young Markets a marketing consultancy dedicated to improving business to business communications. You can contact him through http://www.businesspresentation.biz


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