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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