Debunking 3 myths of public speaking

How and why these supposed “rules” have been misunderstood and misapplied.

These widely believed public speaking myths put pressure on you to do things that are unnecessary.

Myth No.1: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

You’ve most likely heard that 7 percent of your message comes from what you say, 38 percent from your tone of voice, and 55 percent from your body language. There’s no credible evidence that these figures apply to normal day-to-day conversations and presentations.

The figures come from an experiment carried out by Albert Mehrabian 43 years ago. The experiment was very limited in its application. It involved single, tape-recorded words and photographs of people with different facial expressions. I’ve described the experiment in detail here: Mehrabian and nonverbal communication. In the 43 years since, there has been no research that replicates his results in more natural situations.

In a personal e-mail to Max Atkinson, reproduced in Max’s book “Lend me your Ears,” Mehrabian said: “I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings.

Unfortunately the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.” (31 October 2002)

Max Atkinson has written many great posts on the absurdity of the 7-38-55 figures. And for a fun debunking of the Mehrabian myth, see the animated video created by Martin Shovel and Martha Leyton. Shovel has also written a valuable article on the limitations of Mehrabian’s research.

So forget those absurd figures. This myth makes you believe that there is some mystique to public speaking—for which you need special training.

Here’s a more common-sense way of looking at it. Both your content (the words you say) and your delivery are important. Content is the base building block of a great presentation. Delivery has the ability to either enhance or sabotage that content.

Myth No. 2: You must adapt to the ‘learning styles’ of your audience

“Learning styles” is the theory that each person has a preferred learning style and that as a presenter you should cater to all those learning styles. There are many different models for learning styles, but the most popular one is VAK (visual, auditory and kinesthetic modalities). Learning styles theory suggests that all the information you present should be presented in those three modalities.

I recently explored the research literature on learning styles, as did Cathy Moore, an e-learning expert. Reviews of the literature on learning styles do not point to any credible evidence to support learning styles theory. This doesn’t mean that we don’t learn in these different ways or that there aren’t individual differences in the way that we learn. What it does mean is that when we’re presenting, we don’t have to present each piece of information in three different ways.

So you don’t need to worry about who in your audience is visual and who is auditory. (I’ve left out kinesthetic, as that is not often practical in a presentation—it involves more than just playing with a colored rubber ball.) Barring disabilities, everyone has a visual mode and an auditory mode. So present information that is best presented visually with slides, and present information that is best presented aurally with your voice.

Myth No. 3: You must grab people’s attention at the start

The public speaking world adopted this maxim from advertising. Advertisers face the challenge of distracting us from our busyness so that we’ll read their ads. Advertisers must grab attention first.

In a public speaking situation, people are sitting in the audience waiting for you to start. They may be talking to the person next to them or checking their phone, but as soon as you start they’ll pay attention—if only to see whether your presentation is going to be any good. The challenge in public speaking is not to grab attention, but to keep attention.

Here’s why this myth is a problem:

1. Starting with a shocking statistic or dramatic statement is not conversational. It sets up your presentation as a performance. It’s an old-fashioned style of oratory.

2. It pushes you to lead with your best material—with the risk that your presentation will be downhill from there.

3. Many of the “attention-grabbing” techniques are not particularly appropriate for everyday business presentations. For example, if you’re delivering a project team update or a presentation to a decision-making committee, you don’t need to give a shocking statistic or a story of how the issue has affected you personally. There are other more appropriate ways of getting your audience engaged.

4. You may be at your most nervous at the beginning of your presentation. Putting pressure on yourself to have an attention-grabbing opening is not helpful. Instead think of building on the attention you already have to create engagement.

5. If you’re more of an introvert type, you might not be that comfortable making a big splash at the beginning of a presentation.

6. In an effort to have an “attention-grabbing opening” some presenters end up with an opening that has only tangential relevance to their topic. I heard about a speaker who started a business presentation by showing a photo of himself in an apron with a woman’s body in a bikini painted on. That may be an extreme, but sometimes the attention-getter is cheesy and has little relevance to the content of the talk.

7. An overly dramatic opening can be too jarring for the audience, as Rich Hopkins says it can put your audience “on guard.” You’ve already got the audience’s attention. In those first few moments, the more important task is to transform that attention to engagement.

Olivia Mitchell blogs at Speaking about Presenting, where a version of this article originally ran.

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