A friend of mine was on a Communications Skills course the other day. Part of the course covered the importance of non-verbal communication, using the famous 7%/38%/55% equation showing the relative importance of verbal/paralinguistic/facial expression in communication. This was simplified into a content v style dichotomy, emphasising the importance of style (delivery, presentation etc.) over content. My pal was unconvinced that content was only worth a measly 7% of the message and style a whopping 93%. He’s right. This is mixing two concepts together, not quite understanding either: the style v content debate is one thing, the (over-)simplified use of Mehrabian’s equation is another.
First on style versus content.
We live in a world of increasingly short attention spans where we even skip forward on short little ten-minute YouTube videos, scanning content to find what we want, and tire of messages which can’t be tweeted in 140 characters or less. Many of us are from the generation that shout impatiently at microwaves as they take three long minutes to heat a plate of leftovers and are so used to news content presented in headlines, photos, video and graphics that a block of text looks like an impregnable chore. The drive is ever toward fewer words, more pictures; fancy flashy style over boring old content.
This misses the point.
The point is that content is king. Style is there only to support the content, it’s there to ensure the content is delivered: it’s a vehicle, it’s not the end in itself. Too much communications thinking these days twists the 7% v 93% theory to mean that our efforts need to be pointed at style and therefore content doesn’t matter.
From highly unscientific anecdotal experience, I used to have two colleagues who were not quite extreme opposites, but close enough for me to use them to explain a point. One was all fluff and show, full of energy and charisma, funny and the life of the party – but he didn’t say much of any consequence. The other was quiet and serious, calm and deliberate – but he talked a lot of sense. One dominated the room, the other was barely noticed. It was fascinating to watch their impact on the wider group: the first was highly effective in short bursts, especially initially – his style won the day. The other grew in effectiveness over a long period of time as people learned to shut up and pay attention. It was worth the effort.
To put this into the language of theory to make it sound more important:
If someone is all style (s) and no content (c) then their impact is great at the start, but soon wanes as people learn to enjoy their input but see it was a break from the grown-up conversation rather than an integral part of it. This may explain why political candidates – especially in the US primary season – have an early flourish but pall under the campaign spotlight. Even here, style isn’t enough on its own.
This is shown below:
The opposite character is all content and no style. No one listens at first because it’s so boring, but as time goes by, and messages seep in, people learn that this individual is worth listening to. Their impact grows over time.
I don’t think is groundbreaking stuff – I fully realise that I’m stating the obvious, but surprisingly it needs saying. If you want to be heard, you need the style to carry the message, to make the content more effective, but you need the content if you’re going to actually make any long-term or sustained impact:
An interesting case study is here. In this presentation, John Bohannon uses dance instead of PowerPoint. This is hugely stylish, very creative and clearly something everyone in the audience will remember and be talking about afterwards. Is it effective? Yes, in the sense that his objective is to propose that dance can help explain things and he showed that this is possible and he will have opened many minds to that argument. However, he also explained some serious science in the middle of this – how memorable is that? Did it manage to shout above the dance? Did the style drown out that content? Could you explain about the laser slowing down light?
If we (wrongly) applied Mehrabian’s equation, we’d see that this was a triumph of style (the 55%) but this is the wrong application of the theory.
The research by Albert Mehrabian relates to verbal communication only, and states that when there is confusion about the meaning of a message, people tend to only give words about 7% of attention, the way it’s said 38% and the facial expressions (including body language) the 55%. So if you say “that’s great” but have a face like a wet week, only about 7% of people are going to believe you, and they’re probably all under 7 years of age. Most people will look at your face and get your real message.
This is not the same as saying that the content of your professional presentation only has a value of 7%. This is where the theory is misunderstood and misused.