Do you still believe these three public speaking myths?

These widely-believed public speaking myths put pressure on you to do things which are not necessary.

Myth #1: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

You’ve most likely heard that 7% of your message comes from what you say, 38% from your tone of voice, and 55% 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 it’s 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 Non-verbal communication. In the 43 years since, there has been no research that replicates his results in more natural situations.

In a personal email to Max Atkinson, reproduced in Max’s book “Lend me your Ears”, Albert 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)

BTW, 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. Martin 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 #2: 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 Kinaesthetic 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 elearning 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 kinaesthetic as that is not often practical in a presentation – it involves more than just playing with a coloured rubber ball).  Barring disabilities, everyone has a visual mode and an  auditory mode. So present information which is best presented visually with slides, and present information which is best presented aurally with your voice.

Myth #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.

But in the 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 if your presentation is going to be any good. The challenge in public speaking is not to grab attention, it is to keep attention.

attention graphThat’s demonstrated by the chart to the right showing the attention of university students during a 50 minute lecture (check the evidence out further here).

Here’s why this myth is a problem. First, 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. And second, it pushes you to lead with your best material – with the risk that your presentation will be downhill from there.

You’ve already got the audience’s attention. In those first few moments, the more important task is to establish rapport with your audience.

Note: Rich Hopkins has written a thoughtful rebuttal to Myth #3.

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21 Comments

  1. Thanks for putting these three into one posting. Presenting well needs no myths, just a bit of common sense. It’s a people thing.

  2. If I don’t need to grab an audience attention it implies that a “not so good” start can be salvaged… I’m not so sure that that is the case!
    Your third “myth” is based on specific semantics of the word “grab” and “attention”. Attention is gained by moving from mere awareness to a cognitive commitment (which explains why students would remember more). Indeed the real job is to get the audience to continuously cognitively engage with your message. I don’t for not a minute belief that an audience will do that even at the start of a presentation if you are boring, don’t make your message clear, and don’t offer them a value proposition. The evidence in the study says little about the start, it just tells me that presenters need to break monotony, and find different ways of engaging with the audience to ensure that they stay cognitively committed. If we do the same thing throughout we are fighting human nature, a fight that cannot be won.
    Also I am wondering whether all audience wait with abated breath on one’s presentation; even in academia that would be strange, but probably more so in business audience where you need to “sell ideas”.
    So I am still a proponent of work on your start, because if you first loose your audience they are gone… most probably for the whole talk.

    • Hi RABotha
      Thank you for your valuable comment. You’re right that I am focusing on the semantics of “grab attention”. That’s because this phrase is often repeated by public speaking coaches without much thought.

      I agree with you that the real job is to get continuous engagement. And I agree that the start is important and that it’s important to work on it.

      I do think that a “not so good” start can be salvaged. I’ve seen many speakers who are uncomfortable at the start and take a while to get into their rhythm. Most people in the audience will re-engage.

      Olivia

  3. Hi Olivia, I’m sure all the points you have raise are contestable both ways and rely heavily on context. I’ve been paid professionally as a speaker for 20 yrs now and here is my best tip once heard from the platform of another speaker, “go with what brung ya!” yep simples! Authenticity is the key for me, the audience can smell a phoney speaker/presenter a mile off, yes we all need training, learn a few techniques but the powerful speeches I know -I’m vain enough to count myself in that by the way :-) – go with their innate ability to speak, eloquently and passionately about a subject they love and know. The rest of it, stats, stories, anecdotes, poem, aphorism’s, acronym and multi-media props is window dressing to your spirit reaching out and connecting to the multiplied humanity in the vicinity of your presence. It’s a spiritual thing delivered with enthusiasm “as if possessed by a God”

    Keep up the good work

    Respect

    Kriss

    • Hi Kriss
      Thank you for bringing your experience to my blog. I agree that authenticity is key – and for me more important than technique. That’s one of the reasons why I advise against a dramatic start. Most people find it hard to do that authentically (not saying it can’t be done).
      Olivia

    • Hi Kris
      Couldn’t miss a chance to say hello to Kris Akabusi.
      Be yourself… can’t argue with that.
      With perhaps a bit of technique.
      What’s the old saying?
      “If the truth were self evident… there would be no need for rhetoric.”

      Pardon me for asking this on your blog Olivia but if you do find a spare minute Kris…. please please please leave a comment on my blog.
      It would make me smile for a week.

      Would love to hear you speak Kris.

      • No problem Keith – hope you connect.
        Olivia

  4. Hi Olivia
    My own strongly held view is to make your first line count. It doesn’t have to be inappropriate or outlandish in the slightest, but it must somehow encapsulate what you are going to talk about and fire your audience’s imaginations. Make them keen to know what’s coming next.
    I think people sometimes confuse catching the audience’s imagination with capturing their attention. It’s important to start building rapport before you open your mouth. Take your time to show that you are happy to be there with them and that you are interested in them. Only when you are certain you have everyone with you, deliver your first line. They are listening to you at this point. So how do you intrigue them? Make them want to carry on listening to you? It may sometimes possible but it’s certainly not easy to change a poor first impression, despite goodwill from an audience. I think it’s very important to think about and work on an intruiging start.

    As always, a most thought-provoking post!
    Best wishes,
    Dilly

    • Thanks Dilly
      You make some very good points about what we really should be trying to do in the opening of our presentations. I’ll be writing more about this in my next post.
      Olivia

  5. Thanks for taking the time to once again debunk the 7-33-55% myth. I must hear it 10 times a week and every time I assume the person saying it is a lazy flake. (a long time ago, I once passed it on too, unfortunately.)

    • Hi TJ
      It’s a long-lived myth… maybe it won’t every die out!
      And it’s easy to get entranced by it when you first hear it – hence it’s longevity.
      Olivia

      • Hello Olivia,
        I’m coming in a little late to the party, but your post caught my eye. I run a course on presentation and facilitation skills, and I do reinforce that your words will have little or no effect on your audience if not delivered with effective verbal and non-verbal skills. If you stand behind a podium, talk to a slide presentation, never make eye contact, or speak in a monotone voice it won’t matter what you have to say, your audience will either fall asleep or tune you out.
        That said, I’m really am glad I found your web site.
        Regards,
        Linda

  6. Hi Olivia
    Myth #1: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it – this is a classic.
    Like you, I have read Max Atkinson’s book and I think he does a great job of putting this one to bed.

    My next post was going to be about debunking this myth – glad to see we agree.

    • Hi Keith
      Yes, Max does a great job. Look forward to reading your post on the topic. Feel free to come back and post a link here.
      Olivia

  7. Love the video you linked to busting the Mehrabian myth. Makes a lot of sense.

    I understand your argument for Myth #3, but I think grabbing the audiences attention at the beginning sets you up to keep their attention for the rest of the presentation. Your link to more evidence doesn’t necessarily support the idea that you don’t have to grab attention at the beginning, it only suggests that people tend to pay attention at the beginning and become disinterested as the presentation moves along, regardless of the opening tactics. Maybe a stronger opening will affect attention throughout.

    Garr recently posted a great article on this (http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2010/10/start-your-presentation-with-punch.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+PresentationZen+%28Presentation+Zen%29)

    And what’s so wrong with making your presentation a performance?? Sure, there are times when you should make it more conversational, but also times when it should be more persuasive.

    • Hi Nathan
      Thanks for adding your thoughts.

      Most of the time there’s nothing wrong with having an “attention-grabbing opening”, and I do think Garr has written a great post on the topic.

      My view is that public speaking advice has overemphasized “attention-grabbing” at the expense of other factors. I’ll be elaborating on those “other factors” in my next post.

      Regarding performance, I’ve elaborated on my thoughts here:
      http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/delivery/business-presentations-dont-take-performance-too-far/
      Olivia

  8. I think it is this rather aggressive idea of »grabbing attention« that some (including me) dont think helps much. Just as »target oriented« is different from »audience friendly«. In presenting, there are different schools of thought, just as there are different kinds of speakers. Some come to point and shoot, some come to stay and listen.

    I prefer to think in terms of earning your keep as a speaker.

    Earn attention and then hold it. Sometimes you need to get organizational and structural things out of the way first, create a group atmosphere, make a group relax. Create rapport, as Olivia said.

    What works for a TED conference may not work for a smaller audience that have been forced to be there to listen to you at 8.30 am.

    If in doubt (and many quiet and shy speakers are) start slow and end on a strong note. This is what people will remember, this is what they’ll take home. Recency beats primacy in this case.

    Mind you, a good, strong, well voiced first sentence is what I enjoy as much as any. But it needs not be all drama. Not every talk needs to be glam and fireworks.

    Quiet has a voice too, and over the years I have come to like it best.

    • Thank you Anke, for your beautifully-worded and valuable perspective. I’ll be reprising some of your thoughts in my next post.
      Olivia

  9. Thanks for the great article. For myth #3 I will have to agree with Rich. Thanks for providing that link too.

  10. Interesting article and supporting videos.

    Re: Mehrabien Myth video and the 38/7/55 split.

    What would happen (for your audience) if you remained speaking with the same tone, no intonation, rooted the the spot, no body movement, just looking forwards, completely still speaking words?

    I don’t necessarily agree with the percentage split Mehrabien offers yet if you think about the above example then surely different tone and body language associated with the same words would offer a totally different experience for the audience.

    • Hi MrPresenter
      I agree that delivery can have a large impact on the way information is received. In my post I put it this way:
      “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.”
      Olivia

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