When it comes to live, stand-up presentations, the meaning of our messages is primarily derived from the nonverbal aspects of our presentation. UCLA Professor (emeritus), Dr. Albert Mehrabian's early communication study is often quoted in support of the belief that the actual verbal content of our communication is relatively small compared to the power of the nonverbal. The conclusion of Dr. Mehrabian's classic study looks like this:
- 7% of meaning is in the actual words spoken (verbal).
- 38% of meaning is in the way words are spoken, e.g., loudness (vocal).
- 55% of meaning is derived from what we see e.g., facial expressions (visual).
The data is often used in an over simplified way, no doubt. But for practical purposes, it does not really matter if the verbal accounts for 7% or a slightly greater number. What is important to remember — and this seems quite intuitive in fact — is that a huge part of our message in a stand-up presentation is being conveyed nonverbally. Far more than most people realize. Yes, great content is paramount. But content (verbal) is a necessary condition but not a necessary and sufficient one. Presenters must pay close attention to how they present their material (visuals, dress, room, props, handouts, voice, etc.). If the content (verbal) were everything, then one could just read the entire presentation from a manuscript, head down in a monotone voice without much vocal inflection or any eye contact. And this effort would probably be a waste of everyone's time.
People are by their nature inclined to pay close attention to nonverbal cues, even if they are not conscious of this. According to the authors of Why Business People Speak like Idiots, "...human beings are hard-wired to draw much more meaning from people than they are from the information that people present." Absolutely spot on.
A classic example that the authors point out to illustrate the importance of visual communication is the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy televised presidential debates. This debate was broadcast live on both TV and radio. Nixon was not feeling physically well the day of the debates and looked tired, pale, and had bouts of perspiration. But Nixon was a smart guy and held his own in the debate. In fact, people who listened to the debates on the radio (verbal, vocal) judged Nixon to be the winner of the debates. However, people who watched the televised version (verbal, vocal & visual) said Kennedy — the younger, handsome, perspiration-free candidate — won the debate. The visual mattered then. And it matters now.
The important thing to remember about Mehrabian's study is not the actual percentages, but simply that there is no question about it: the visual and the vocal are at least as important as your content, perhaps more so. Certainly the visual and the vocal aspects are something that are not given enough attention judging from my own experience and the loud complaints from the business world about the "Death by PowerPoint" syndrome.