In a recent speech about presentation skills, a local politician made this statement, “The most important part of your presentation is your appearance.” What?? When I heard that, I wanted to scream!
Turns out, his statement is based on misinterpretation of a long-held belief about communication. His ignorance of the facts led to bad advice. Before you hear why, it’s important to understand the root of this incorrect information.
In 1968, Dr. Alfred Mehrabian published a study about how people communicate ‘silently’ through emotion and attitude. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Mehrabian, you may be familiar with a statistic that claims ‘only 7% of communication is the words you use.”
This is a commonly accepted ‘fact’ among many speakers. It has led many to focus on their delivery skills, at the expense of their messages.
There’s only one problem. Dr. Mehrabian never wrote that “only 7% of communication is the words you use.” In his original studies, when test subjects received inconsistent messages [for example, a person told them “I love you”, but had crossed arms, a scowl on her face, and said the words in an angry tone], the subjects interpreted the message more from the body language and tone of voice, rather than the words.
Dr. Mehrabian showed that, given an inconsistent message, people will believe the non-verbals messages rather than the words 93% of the time. That’s it. Nowhere does he claim that “only 7% of communication is the words you use.” His findings teach us that, given a mixed message, we’ll tend to be leave the speaker’s body or voice before their words.
With that in mind, let’s revisit our politician friend. His claim about the importance of appearance is laughable at best, but worse, it can hurt people’s careers or reputations. Perhaps in the sound-bite world of politics, appearance is all that matters.
If you give a speech or sell a product, though, words and concepts matter. Early in my career, when I gave a speech, I focused on delivery and appearance…and made almost no connection with audiences. They didn’t buy into my messages, and they certainly didn’t buy the services I was selling. My career was held back because I was focused on the wrong part of communication.
It wasn’t until I learned how to create substantive messages, and deliver them in an authentic manner, that I made connections with people and impacted their lives when I presented a speech.
If I’m to believe that appearance is the most important part of communicating, this means that when Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke to a quarter of a million people, his words didn’t really matter as long as he was well-dressed and spoke confidently with a deep voice. He didn’t need to say, “I Have a Dream.”
I don’t think so.
Am I saying appearance is not important? Absolutely not. However, if you want to make a long-lasting impression, what you say is vital. When people hear a meaningful talk delivered with authenticity, they’ll pick up the congruity of the message and the messenger. They’ll remember that long after they remember your appearance.
EDUCATIONAL RESOURCE OF THE WEEK
As a follow-up to this article if you ‘d like to hear more about this subject from Dr. Mehrabian himself, click here.