31 August 2010

Mandelson v. E. Miliband - and does the noble lord read (& borrow from) my blog?

Just over a month ago, I strayed from the usual 'non-aligned' focus of this blog to speculate on where one of the Labour leadership candidates, Ed Miliband, seemed to be positioning himself in the contest: 'Can Labour afford to back the Ed Milibandwagon?'

I rather wished I hadn't, as it was picked up by the Labour List website - from where the link implied that I was suggesting that Miliband the Younger is a dangerous Trot, rather than the 'lefter than thou' candidate (at least among the boys in the race).

This prompted howls of anger from some of his supporters, one of whom suggested that I was engaged in a Daily Mail style 'hatchet job'.

Now, however, the gist of what I was saying has been echoed by Lord Mandelson, whose position is summed up in the Guardian website as follows:

.. speaking to The Times, Mandelson said anyone who tried to take Labour back to the era before Blair's election as leader in 1994 would wreck the party's chances of a swift return to power.

Addressing Ed Miliband's criticisms, the peer said: "I think that if he or anyone else wants to create a pre-New Labour future for the party then he and the rest of them will quickly find that that is an electoral cul-de-sac."

He said Lord Kinnock and Lord Hattersley – the former leader and deputy leader, who have both voiced support for Ed Miliband – wanted to "hark back to a previous age".

"We're a political party, not a church, and we require the support of voters actively to embrace us, and if we stop recognising that, then we're going to be taken back into those long years of opposition that served us and the country so ill.

"If you shut the door on New Labour you're effectively slamming the door in the faces of millions of voters who voted for our party."

I don't often find myself agreeing with the Prince of Darkness, but the similarity between this and what I posted a month ago has got me wondering whether he'd followed the link here from Labour List .

Or is he, perhaps, a regular reader of this blog?

29 August 2010

Rattling good tunes?

I've just been having another look at the video posted a few weeks ago of Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It reminded me of just how surprised I was when I heard his rather conservative choice of 8 records as his Desert Island Discs back in 2008.

After all, here's a conductor who, before migrating to Berlin, had made his name with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra by enticing the culture vultures of the West Midlands to listen to the tuneless and discordant noises cooked up by modern classical composers.

Which of their delights, I wondered, would he want to take with him to find solace on his desert island?

Answer: none of them!

Apart from a Joni Mitchell song, the most modern specimens he could manage - Janacek (1854-1927) and Mahler (1860-1911) - weren't very modern at all.

If his chosen pieces are the only ones he enjoys well enough to take with him to the desert island, it does make you wonder why he's devoted so much of his career to imposing programmes of modern classical music on his audiences - when he himself would apparently much rather be listening to more traditional and accessible fare.

Rattle's 8 Desert Island Discs:
1. Mahler: Andante, 9th Symphony
2. Sometimes I’m Happy, Performer Joni Mitchell
3. J.S. Bach: The beginning of Brandenburg Concerto No 1
4. Janacek: The end of The Cunning Little Vixen
5. Mozart: Adagio for Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments
6. Haydn's Creation: The Great Work is Completed
7. Sleep on and Rest in Dreams from Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri
8. Handel: Scherza Infida from Handel’s Ariodante

23 August 2010

70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain: speeches by Churchill & Roosevelt

Friday 20th August was the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill's famous words after the Battle of Britain "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" - from a speech that can be read in full HERE.

As he was speaking in the House of Commons, long before its proceedings were broadcast on radio or television, there are no tapes of the original.

But news of the anniversary sent me looking through YouTube to see what else was available from that period.

The first one that struck me was a speech made by President Roosevelt in 1939 that goes a long way towards explaining why, when we were children, my generation used to hear so much bitterness from our parents and their contemporaries about the USA staying out of the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.

Before seeing this, I hadn't quite appreciated just how emphatically isolationist the American position was on the eve of the fall of France and the Battle of Britain (and, to my English ears, Roosevelt's delivery comes across as vaguely menacing):


Then, a few months later, as the Battle of Britain was about to begin, Churchill came on the radio with what was to become another of his most famous wartime speeches:

Watching and listening to these clips reminded me of two anecdotes about the two leaders.

Speechwriting is a waste of time
One is that, when Churchill used to disappear for a few hours to write his broadcast speeches, there were civil servants in Downing Street who used to complain about the amount of time the PM was 'wasting' by taking so much time off to prepare his speeches.

Churchill v. Roosevelt
The other was a story of two speeches that Churchill and Roosevelt were scheduled to make at about the same time. The time difference between the USA and the UK meant that Churchill spoke first.

His script was wired to to White House before Roosevelt had made his speech - at which point, so the story goes, an angry Roosevelt summoned his speechwriters to complain of the inferior quality of their work compared with Churchill's latest masterpiece.

The hapless writers are alleged to have replied: "Sorry Mr President, but the trouble is that the old man rolls his own."

19 August 2010

Body language on BBC Radio 4's 'Word of Mouth' (17 August, 2010)

If you missed my appearance on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth programme on body language earlier this week, you can listen to it again on the BBC website for a few more days - after which you'll still be able to hear it below (I come on after about 12 minutes).

For what it's worth, I thought that the American body language 'expert' was dead right in referring to some of his own words of wisdom (at least twice) as "ludicrous over-generalizations" - but it did leave me wondering why, if he knows that, he's so willing to trot them out so authoritatively to anyone who happens to be listening.

With social psychologists like that on the loose, is it any wonder that so many false and misleading claims about non-verbal behavior have become embedded in the mythology of management training?


Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:

17 August 2010

Fact & fiction about body language 3: Do movement & gestures distract?

Thanks - and an apology to the BBC!
An hour or two ago, I was one of those interviewed on a BBC Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' programme on body language - which can now be heard (for the next 7 days) HERE.

As the interview I did with Chris Ledgard lasted for twice as long as the whole programme, it was obvious that whatever I said would be heavily edited.

This, coupled with the fact that the main guest advertised in the BBC's advance publicity is a body language expert, made me start worrying that my position on the subject wouldn't get get as full a hearing as I'd like. So, to put the record straight, I decided to post a series of extracts from Chapter 11 ('Body Language: Fact and Fiction') of my book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Public Speaking and Presentation.

However, I needn't have bothered, because within the constraints of a half-hour radio show, I thought that Chris Ledgard and his producer, Beatrice Fenton, gave me as full and fair a hearing as I could have hoped for. I would therefore like to thank them for doing such a good job and to apologise for suggesting that I might need to set the record straight.

However, having started the series, I might as well complete it - especially as the programme may have brought some new visitors to the blog (to whom welcome) who might be curious to know more...

1. Does movement distract?
I once worked with a presentation skills trainer who taught that speakers should not only stand still, but that there was a correct stance for presentation that involved placing one foot slightly in front of the other. After the lecture that included this advice, delegates regularly came to me pointing out a glaring inconsistency between what they had just heard and what they had just seen. While recommending them not to move about when they were speaking, he had spent most of the lecture wandering about the conference room.

When asked if this worried or distracted them, delegates invariably said “no”. Most went further, adding that it helped to hold their interest and came across as lively and enthusiastic. This positive reaction to movement is in fact typical of how members of audiences tend to react when commenting on each other’s presentations. Movement features in their plus columns much more frequently than in their minus columns, which suggests that the best advice for the vast majority of people is that, if they feel like moving about, they should do so.

There is, however, a small minority of cases where speakers’ movements do get a negative rating from audience members, such as when someone continually sways from side to side, or takes a few steps forwards and a few steps back, over and over again. What these negatively rated movements have in common is a relentless repetitiveness that is at best a distraction, and at worst a source of irritation to audiences.

It may well be an awareness of this that leads some trainers to recommend that no one should ever move around at all while speaking. But the trouble with adopting such a blanket solution to solve what is a relatively rare problem is that it is likely to deter the vast majority of people from doing something that will have a positive impact on their audiences. Movement also has positive benefits for speakers themselves, as it helps to disperse adrenalin and reduce tension.

As for how to find out if you are one of the minority whose movements are likely to distract, the best way is through a simple practical experiment. The next time you make a speech or presentation, forget about standing still and move around in any way that comes naturally to you: then check on people’s reactions afterwards. This is much more reliable than watching yourself on video, as we tend to be far too critical of our own individual performances. Many are the times that I have heard people denounce the way they move when they see themselves on tape, only to be contradicted by those who had been in the audience at the time. If one accepts that the audience is always right, the safest bet is to listen to what they have to say.

2. Do gestures distract?
The news from audiences about gestures is very similar to that on movement more generally. On almost every presentation skills course I have ever run, someone will say that they have been on another one where the trainer told them that gestures are distracting, and that speakers should keep their hands motionless during presentations. Meanwhile, it is just as rare for audiences to give negative ratings when they see speakers gesticulating as when they see them moving about. In fact they are much more likely to rate the use of gestures as a definite plus, often referring to it as evidence of expressiveness, individuality and liveliness.

As with the blanket prohibition on moving about while speaking, it may be that some trainers recommend the total suppression of gestures as an insurance policy against the risk that we might belong to the small minority whose hand movements are a source of distraction or irritation to audiences. These tend to be the ones that bear no discernable connection to what the speaker is saying.

For example, a video- tape that I often use in training programmes shows a speaker continuously flapping his hand up and down. Everyone who has seen the tape not only notices it, but is also highly critical of it. Other uses of the hands that attract negative ratings include continuous hair tugging, hand wringing, or fidgeting with some other object (most usually the cap of a felt-tipped pen) or part of the anatomy. Like the randomly flapping hand, what makes these distracting and irritating to audiences is that they do not relate in any obvious way to what the speaker is saying.

The opponents of gestural freedom seem to have missed a number of key points about the use of gestures. One is that, as already mentioned, only a small minority of people, perhaps as few as ten per cent, exhibit any such problems at all. Another is that as skilled an orator as Hitler would hardly have practised his gestures in front of a mirror if they were such a waste of time.

And if it really is a distraction to use gestures, there must be tens of millions of people distracting each other every second of every day. This is for the very obvious reason that gesticulating while speaking is a thoroughly natural and normal part of the way humans communicate with each other. As such, any deliberate or conscious effort to suppress gestures may well impede a speaker’s fluency, and restrict their ability to express themselves. At the same time completely motionless hands look distinctly odd to those who are listening, whether they are in conversation or sitting in an audience.

One of the uses of gestures is as visual aids to illustrate or emphasise what we are talking about. For example, when Winston Churchill spoke of an ‘iron curtain’ descending across Europe, he moved his left hand downwards at the same time. When Bill Clinton said that there was nothing wrong with America that couldn’t be solved by what is right with America, he stabbed the air just before the words ‘wrong’ and ‘right’.

Sometimes speakers move their left hand during one part of a contrast, following it with a similar movement of the right hand during the second part. When listing three items, it’s quite normal for people to count them out on their fingers, or to make three hand movements at the same time. Even very young children have no problem in pointing at the thing they are asking for, or in holding their hands a certain distance apart to show how big something is.

We don’t have to be explicitly taught to do any of these things, and are more or less completely unaware that we are doing them. Nor do we give much thought to the fine degree of precision timing that it takes to get it right, even though words and gestures have to be closely coordinated if they are to come across as natural rather than clumsy or awkward. So the advice on gestures is to do whatever comes naturally, because the chances are that it will make a presentation more expressive and animated than would otherwise be the case.

In fact, different people gesticulate in slightly different ways, which makes it one of those behavioural details that plays a part in conveying a person’s individuality. As such, using gestures is much more likely to help you to get your own personality across to an audience, than adopting a stance that makes you look like a stuffed dummy whose hands have been firmly glued to its sides or behind its back.

Finally, there is a close parallel between the use of gesture and one of the points made about intonation in Chapter 2. This was the observation that the bigger the distance between speaker and audience, the more will changes in tone and emphasis tend to flatten out. In the same way, slight gestures that are perfectly visible at close quarters in a conversation become progressively more difficult for the audience to see as their distance from the speaker increases.

If, as was suggested earlier, you can avoid the problem of monotone by exaggerating your normal conversational patterns of intonation, so too can you make your gestures more visible by exaggerating your normal conversational hand movements. And the bigger the audience, the more expansive and flamboyant you can afford to be.

Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:

Fact & fiction about body language 2: Does it matter what you wear or where you stand?

This afternoon, I'll be appearing on a BBC Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' programme on body language. As the interview I did lasted for twice as long as the whole programme, it's inevitable that whatever I said will be heavily edited.

This, coupled with the fact that the main guest advertised in the BBC's advance publicity is a body language expert, means that there's a fair chance that my position on the subject won't get as full a hearing as I'd like.

So, to put the record straight, I've decided to post a series of extracts from Chapter 11 ('Body Language: Fact and Fiction') of my book
Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Public Speaking and Presentation.

The first of these - Folded arms, defensiveness and the Mehrabian Myth - was posted yesterday, and the third extract on whether movement and gestures distract will be posted shortly.

1. Does it matter what you wear?
A few years ago, a delegate on one of my courses reported that, after failing to get promoted, he was told that one of the main reasons for being passed over was that he had worn a green suit at the interview. Unfortunately for him, there were members of the panel who had been informed by an image consultant to be wary of men who wear green suits to business meetings.

Albert Mehrabian may be uncomfortable about self-styled image consultants with very little psychological expertise, but the situation may be even worse than he thinks: some image consultants are quite willing to make definitive-sounding claims without being constrained at all by facts or research. The seriousness of the situation first came to my notice when I was invited to speak on a conference panel with an image consultant, whose company specialises in advising people what they should wear, and what colours suit them best. At a briefing meeting some weeks beforehand, it seemed a wise precaution to check on whether the clothes I was wearing would contradict any of the advice she was planning to present to the audience.

My suit was apparently fine, but my tie was “the tie of a man going nowhere”. Fearing that there might be some hidden reasons for concern about my career prospects, I asked what kind of tie I should be wearing. The answer was that it ought to be bright red with prominent patterns on it. By now, I was beginning to wonder if there were whole new reservoir of scientific data that I ought to know about, so I inquired about the knowledge base on which such claims were based. After a few moments hesitation, she answered “It’s loosely based on the Bauhaus movement in German art in the 1920s.”

When it came to the conference, I followed her professional advice by wearing a bright red tie with yellow arrows running up and down each side of it. On seeing it, the image consultant greeted me with the words, “That’s the tie of a man going somewhere -- but that belt you’re wearing should be buried.”

Ties, it turned out, were at the heart of her presentation, the gist of which was that patterns smaller than a five pence piece were “yesterday’s ties and should be binned.” However, if the pattern was bigger than a fifty pence piece, it was apparently “over the top” and should also not be worn. The key to success was therefore to wear a tie with a pattern somewhere in between the size of the two coins.

What fascinated me most about all this was that, at the end of the session, members of the audience (all of whom were highly qualified professionals) formed long queues to buy her publications on the subject. Some even started to make enquiries about the bringing her into their various companies to advise colleagues.

In effect, what consultants like this have done is to identify and tap into a market that seems to be based mainly on fear and anxiety. There are a lot of men who are so uninterested in fashion and so uncertain about what style of clothes to wear that they are prepared to pay for professional advice and reassurance. It’s a market that has probably also been stimulated by an increase in the number of professional women, who unlike men, have no obvious uniform to wear at work.

2. Appropriate dress
This is not to say that how we dress doesn’t matter at all. For example, after losing a legal dispute with Virgin Atlantic, Lord King, former chairman of British Airways is reputed to have said that he would have taken Virgin boss Richard Branson more seriously if he had worn a suit and tie rather than his customary sweater and open-necked shirt.

Many years ago, while I was being video-taped doing a lecture on a course for new university lecturers, the studio lights were so hot that I took my jacket off. At the feedback session, it became a matter for discussion: the tutor stopped the tape with the words, “Here’s a speaker who really means business.” Though nothing could have been further from the truth, the realisation that some people might see it that way has made jacket removal a routine prelude to almost every lecture I have ever given since then.

The point here is not that clothes don’t matter at all, but that we should not be drawn into thinking that there is some scientifically based recipe that is guaranteed to enable us to convey a favourable impression to every member of every audience, regardless of the particular circumstances of the occasion. In my experience, most people get away with it through a combination of common sense and trial and error. There will obviously be times when advice and reassurance will be needed, in which case family and colleagues are likely to be just as helpful as professional image consultants, and certainly a great deal cheaper.

3. Are Lecterns and Tables Barriers to Communication?
The claim that folded arms are ‘defensive’ (see previous post) is partly based on the idea that putting your forearms in front of your chest places a barrier between you and your audience. As such, it’s part of a more general theory to the effect that anything that can be construed as a barrier between speaker and audience is a bad thing.

I spent five of my teenage years at a school where daily attendance at a church service was compulsory. A lectern stood between the person reading the lesson and the congregation, but it never once occurred to me during all those years that it was a barrier, or that it was somehow reducing the effectiveness of the reader’s impact. As far as I know, I was not alone, as I never heard anyone else worrying about it either. Nor do I remember any of us ever complaining about our teachers’ desks being barriers that made it more difficult for them to communicate with us.

Many years later, more and more of those who read lessons in church have taken to standing next to the lectern in full view of the congregation. They then struggle to read the tiny print in the Bible they have brought with them. Often, this is made even more difficult by the fact that they are so nervous that they can’t hold it without it shaking in their hands.

A similar trend is evident in more secular settings, where more and more presenters are reluctant to stand behind tables and lecterns, preferring to move to one side or in front of them. Like readers in church, some of them also have trouble holding their notes in trembling hands, while those who leave them behind on the table have to keep turning awkwardly around to see what comes next, sometimes even losing their place altogether.

Whether or not audiences regard the lectern as a barrier, church architects have known for hundreds of years that it’s an extremely efficient device for making it as easy as possible to read from a text. It positions a Bible with large easy-to-read print at a height and an angle that suits most adults. Readers can glance up at the congregation and down to the text without even having to move their heads, and without fear of losing their place.

By comparison, tables are not such efficient resting places for notes or scripts, as they require speakers to glance up and down through an arc of nearly ninety degrees. But they are nonetheless extremely useful places for resting brief cases, computers, projectors and other paraphernalia associated with making a presentation.

All this raises the question of whether anyone would ever be in the least bit concerned about lecterns and tables if, like my generation of school children, they had never heard anyone describe them as ‘barriers’. The way delegates on courses raise the topic suggests that it’s not a particularly burning issue for them either. They are much more likely to ask generalised questions based on what they’ve heard -- are they really barriers, is it a serious problem? – than to complain that they personally experience lecterns as terrible obstacles to effective rapport between speaker and audience.

This suggests that lecterns and tables are much less of a problem for audiences than is suggested by much of the received wisdom on the subject. The most sensible approach is therefore not to avoid them altogether, but to balance their undoubted practical advantages against the possible risk of giving the audience a negative impression. For example, when speaking without notes, or from notes on cards that are stiff enough not to flap about in trembling hands, speakers have nothing to lose by deserting the lectern or table. At other times, however, the advantage of not losing one’s place while retaining eye contact with the audience will almost always outweigh any disadvantages that might arise from being seen to be standing behind the lectern or table.

If you do decide to use a lectern, it is important to be aware of an ever-present temptation that’s best avoided. Sometimes known as ‘white knuckle syndrome’, it involves speakers gripping on to the sides of the lectern so tightly that the rigidity of their posture, and the nervousness that lies behind it, become visible for all to see. And, once you are locked into this stiff and static stance, there’s almost certain to be a build-up of tension that will reduce the effectiveness of your delivery. This suggestion that immobility may have a negative impact on speakers and audiences runs counter to another modern myth about non-verbal communication, namely that you shouldn’t move about while speaking because it distracts the audience.

Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:

16 August 2010

Fact & fiction about body language 1: Folded arms, defensiveness and the Mehrabian myth

I was interviewed recently for a BBC Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' programme on body language that's scheduled to be broadcast tomorrow. As the interview lasted for twice as long as the whole programme, it's inevitable that whatever I said will be heavily edited.

This, coupled with the fact that the main guest being advertised in the BBC's advance publicity is a body language expert, means that there's a fair chance that my position on the subject may not get as full a hearing as I'd like.

So, to put the record straight, I've decided to post a series of extracts from Chapter 11 ('Body Language: Fact and Fiction') of my book
Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Public Speaking and Presentation.

A number of topics that are often grouped together under headings like ‘body language’ and ‘non-verbal communication’ have already been discussed in earlier chapters: the role of eye contact in holding the attention of audiences (Chapter 1), and the importance of intonation, stress and pausing (Chapter 2). But there are various other claims about non-verbal communication that are heard so often that it is important to consider just how seriously they should be taken

1. Comfort, cold or confrontation?

Looking out on the audience in a crowded lecture theatre, I often notice that some people are sitting with their arms folded. If I believed all the modern myths about body language I would start worrying about what I’d said or done to prompt such a mass display of defensiveness. This is because it is widely claimed in the folklore of management training that people with their arms folded are on the defensive.

Luckily, I have two good reasons for not becoming too paranoid when I see people with folded arms sitting in an audience. One is that I have, on many occasions, taken the trouble to ask them if they are on the defensive. Usually, they say that they are feeling comfortable. Occasionally, they complain about the lack of armrests on the chairs, or about the inadequacies of the heating system. But never once has anyone ever said that they are feeling defensive.

A second reason for not worrying about it is that there are invariably several people sitting with their arms folded. This is exactly what one would expect from observing how people behave in groups. It is a manifestation of what researchers have dubbed ‘postural echo’, which refers to our tendency to copy or reflect, albeit subconsciously, similar postures to those around us. The fact that there are a number of people with folded arms is therefore more likely to mean that they are responding to each other than mounting a collective display of defensiveness against me.

If, on the other hand, we fold our arms when confronted with an awkward question or some other kind of threat, it may well then be a sign of going on the defensive. This gives us a fourth possible meaning to add to comfort, missing armrests and feeling cold. So, just like words in a language, elements of body language can have different meanings in different contexts.

The trouble is that many trainers seem all too ready to accept and propagate a more rigid doctrine, in which things like folded arms are assigned a single, unambiguous and unvarying meaning in all situations. Indeed, so widely entrenched has this particular view become, that I now recommend people not to fold their arms when speaking, whether in a presentation, job interview or anywhere else where they are keen to make a good impression. This is not because I believe that folded arms are a sign of defensiveness, but because I know that there’s a high probability that there will be someone in the audience who believes that it is.

2. Non-verbal Sense and Nonsense

The overstated claims about the meaning of folded arms are part of a much more general trend that has gathered pace over the past two or three decades. This is the rise of various modern myths about the overwhelming importance of body language and other non-verbal factors in human communication. It is a view that has been fuelled by a mass of books aimed at distilling the findings from research by social psychologists and others for the benefit of a mass readership. Some have become best sellers, and much of their appeal no doubt lies in the fact that, although people are vaguely aware of body language, there is an air of mystery about what it is, how it works and what it conveys. Such books therefore hold out the hope that, if only we knew how to crack the code, our social lives would be transformed for the better.

The trouble is that the process of popularisation almost inevitably results in research findings being diluted and simplified to such an extent that, by the time they reach a wider audience, they are presented as being far more definite and unambiguous than the original researchers ever intended. What started out as preliminary observations or hypotheses become hard facts, and few of the original author’s words of caution about the methodological limitations of a particular experiment ever find their way into the popularised versions. One of the most spectacular examples of this is the claim that the words we use are by far the least important part of the communication process.

3. Is 93% of communication non-verbal?

Type ‘non-verbal communication’, or something similar, into almost any search engine, and up will come a reference to a widely repeated claim about the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal factors in communication. The following version (from HERE) is typical:

“Studies show that during interpersonal communication

· 7% of the message is verbally communicated

· while 93% is non-verbally transmitted.

“Of the 93% non-verbal communication:

· 38% is through vocal tones

· 55% is through facial expressions.”

Like almost all the other citations of these statistics, whether on web sites or in books and courses on presentation skills, mention of ‘studies’ is not accompanied by any reference to what the original research actually consisted of, let alone who did it or when it was done. Nor, on the several occasions when I have asked lecturers or trainers who have presented it unquestioningly as ‘fact’, has any of them ever been able to cite the source, or to provide any further details about the original study.

None of this would matter were it not for the fact that the claim flies so flagrantly in the face of our common-sense experience. If true, for example, it would mean that anyone who is unable to see a speaker’s facial expressions, whether because they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio or talking to someone on the telephone, would only be able to understand 45% of what was said to them. It would have made more sense for Shakespeare to have had Mark Anthony say, “Lend me your eyes”, and for the same correction to be made to the title of this book.

Most absurd of all is the fact that, if only 7% is verbally communicated, there would be no need for anyone ever to learn foreign languages, as we would already be able to understand 93% of any particular one of them without any formal instruction at all.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of claims like this is that they help to spread and consolidate the myth that non-verbal behaviour is so overwhelmingly dominant that the words we use to convey our messages are of little or no importance. This is not only grossly misleading, but also increases the normal anxieties of speech-making with a catalogue of extra things to worry about, like stance, gesture, movement and even what colour clothes to wear.

In some cases, there is a huge gulf between the originators of the research and their disciples, both in the amount of confidence shown in such ‘facts,’ and in the extent to which they hold them to be generally applicable. This is certainly true of the 93% claim, which first reached a wider public with the publication of the book Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes by Dr Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist at the University of California, in 1981. But, as he pointed out to me in an e-mail, the research on which it was based dates from more than a decade before that, and was actually concerned with feelings and attitudes:

“This work of mine has received considerable attention in the literature. It was reported originally by Mehrabian & Weiner (1967) and Mehrabian & Ferris (1967). Silent Messages contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent and consistent messages of feelings and attitudes.

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking.”

(Albert Mehrabian , personal communication, e-mail, 16 October 2002).

A key point to note here is that Dr Mehrabian’s original percentages refer to different types of ‘liking’, and not to communication in all its forms. And, as one of the originators of these numbers, he writes with far more caution about their general applicability than is ever shown by the popularisers of his work:

“Please note that this and other equations regarding differential importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e. like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.” (Albert Mehrabian, personal communication, e-mail, 16 October 2002).

Unlike Dr Mehrabian, those who recycle these percentages with such confidence have few qualms about generalising way beyond anything he ever intended. Their cavalier disregard for the details of his research is also a matter of some concern to him, as he indicated in the reply to an e-mail in which I asked him what he thought about his findings being so widely used to mislead people about the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal communication:

“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.” (Albert Mehrabian , personal communication, e-mail, 31 October 2002).

If this biggest of all claims about the dominance of the non-verbal over the verbal has been so exaggerated and distorted in its translation from the original to the training rooms of the world, the question arises as to the reliability of other ‘facts’ that make up the received wisdom about body language and non-verbal communication.


  1. Does it matter what you wear and are lecterns barriers to communication?
  2. Do movement and gestures distract?
A recent post - Another example where 100% of the communication is 'non verbal' - includes links to other related discussions of the subject on this blog.

Over the past few years, I've been delighted to see that the view expressed here seems to be gaining wider acceptance. See, for example, the animated critique by Creativity Works, 'Busting the Mehrabian Myth' and Olivia Mitchell's blog posts HERE and HERE.

12 August 2010

Legal gobbledygook & a lesson in US history

I don't often find circulated humorous emails funny enough to be worth inflicting on others, but this one is an exception that should appeal to anyone interested in language and communication.

Apparently people who work for the US government never had to take US history!
Part of rebuilding New Orleans caused residents often to be challenged with the task of tracing home titles back potentially hundreds of years. With a community rich with history stretching back over two centuries, houses have been passed along through generations of family, sometimes making it quite difficult to establish ownership. Here's a great letter an attorney wrote to the FHA on behalf of a client: you have to love this lawyer........

A New Orleans lawyer sought an FHA loan for a client. He was told the loan would be granted if he could prove satisfactory title to a parcel of property being offered as collateral. The title to the property dated back to 1803, which took the lawyer three months to track down. After sending the information to the FHA, he received the following:

Actual reply from FHA:
'Upon review of your letter adjoining your client's loan application, we note that the request is supported by an Abstract of Title. While we compliment the able manner in which you have prepared and presented the application, we must point out that you have only cleared title to the proposed collateral property back to 1803. Before final approval can be accorded, it will be necessary to clear the title back to its origin.'

Annoyed, the lawyer responded as follows:
'Your letter regarding title in Case No.189156 has been received. I note that you wish to have title extended further than the 206 years covered by the present application. I was unaware that any educated person in this country, particularly those working in the property area, would not know that Louisiana was purchased by the United States from France in 1803, the year of origin identified in our application.

'For the edification of uninformed FHA bureaucrats, the title to the land prior to U.S. ownership was obtained from France, which had acquired it by Right of Conquest from Spain. The land came into the possession of Spain by Right of Discovery made in the year 1492 by a sea captain named Christopher Columbus, who had been granted the privilege of seeking a new route to India by the Spanish monarch, Queen Isabella. The good Queen Isabella, being a pious woman and almost as careful about titles as the FHA, took the precaution of securing the blessing of the Pope before she sold her jewels to finance Columbus's expedition.

'Now the Pope, as I'm sure you may know, is the emissary of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and God, it is commonly accepted, created this world. Therefore, I believe it is safe to presume that God also made that part of the world called Louisiana. God, therefore, would be the owner of origin and His origins date back to before the beginning of time, the world as we know it, and the FHA. I hope you find God's original claim to be satisfactory. Now, may we have our damn loan?'

The loan was immediately approved!

P.S. A few hours after posting this, I received this message from Lou Hampton , to whom thanks, via Twitter(@louhampton):

It is funny, but it's a joke circa 1955 (for more on which, see HERE).

Disappointing though it was to discover that it's such an ancient joke, the moral of the story is that my previous policy of not inflicting emailed jokes on wider audiences was (a) correct and (b) should and will be instantly reinstated.

Meanwhile, here are some original posts on gobbledygook:

9 August 2010

If you can't remember Vince Cable's best lines, nor can he!

I'm grateful to Martin Shovel for drawing my attention to an interesting article about Vince Cable by Decca Aitkenhead in today's Guardian (via @MartinShovel on Twitter).

As it's only rarely (e.g. in this example from Ronald Millar) that we get to hear politicians and/or their speechwriters commenting on memorable lines from speeches, I was especially intrigued by the following part of the interview:

... I mention Cable's famous joke about Brown morphing from Stalin to Mr Bean, and ask if he knew it would be such a hit.

"No, and in fact I get a bit frustrated, because I'm actually quite good at one-liners, and I've had hundreds of them over the years, and they sink without trace, and I get very frustrated. Every party conference I really work on the speeches, and I always have two or three things I'm quite proud of, and no one ever remembers them. I can't even remember them myself. I think they're brilliant," he chuckles, "and no one else notices. So every week at PMQs I had a very good line, I thought. And yet that's the only one that anyone remembers."

In case you never saw it, here it is:


What made it so memorable?
As readers of my books (and various posts on this blog - see below) will know, contrasts are among the most important and powerful rhetorical techniques in the armoury of public speakers and, not surprisingly, feature in some of the most famous quotations of all time.

But this particular contrast between a notoriously authoritarian leader and a bumbling idiot had at least two added advantages - both of which, I've suggested in an earlier blogpost may be critical in making a line or a speech 'memorable': timing and context.

On timing, it came when Gordon Brown had come increasingly under attack for his alleged indecisiveness - and therefore touched an aptly topical nerve with the audience.

On context, the fact Mr Cable was a new (and temporarily 'acting') party leader who was addressing the contrast directly to Mr Brown across the floor of the House of Commons gave it a chirpy cheekiness - as if a schoolboy were poking fun at the headmaster in front of the whole school.

One of the problems in coming to any definitive conclusions about what makes some lines more memorable than others is that you always have to approach them with the wisdom of hindsight.

Take, for example, the most famous line from John F Kennedy's inaugural speech - "ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." A powerful contrast it may have been, but it was hardly noticed by the media at the time (HERE).


7 August 2010

Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government

In anticipation of strange things happening during the first party conference season since the coalition government came to power, Liberal Democrat Voice has just posted some funny bits from Tory Party conferences of yesteryear.

I was rather surprised that they didn't balance them with a few clips from past Liberal Democrat Conferences and/or Liberal Assemblies of yesteryear, which has prompted me to start looking through my archives for gems.

What better place to start than David Steel's final words to the Liberal Party Assembly in 1981 (even though it's taken 29 years for them to come true)?


6 August 2010

Another example where 100% of the communication is 'non-verbal'

Regular readers will know that I'm not over-impressed by 'experts' who exaggerate the importance of body language and non-verbal behavior, and especially those who continue to spread the Mehrabian myth that 93% of communication is 'non-verbal' (for more on which, see links below).

But there are exceptions where 100% of the communication is indeed non-verbal, as in the case of a World Cup referee sending a player off for not having hit an opponent in the face that I posted a few weeks ago HERE.

A more elegant example where 100% of the communication is non-verbal is to be found in the way conductors interact with the orchestra during a concert.

No doubt the Mehrabianistas would want to put a percentage on how much of the communication is coming from Simon Rattle's facial expression as compared with movements of his hands (left, right and/or together), body, mouth, eyebrows, face, etc.

But how you'd go about arriving at such measurements is quite beyond me, and I'd be most interested to hear from anyone who could enlighten me on the matter. Meanwhile, I'll just have to make do with watching (and listening to) the music....

P.S. Since posting this, John Hindmarsh, to whom thanks, has drawn my attention to a fascinating TED talk by Itay Talgram comparing the styles of great conductors

Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:
P.S. Since posting this, Jon Hindmarsh, to whom many thanks, has drawn my attention via Twitter (@jonhindmarsh) to a fascinating TED talk by Itay Talgram comparing the styles of great conductors:

5 August 2010

Misspeaking, mistaken and misleading

In case you missed the sequence in which, according to Downing Street sources, David Cameron 'misspoke' when he said that Iran has nuclear weapons, here it is:

Until Hillary Clinton came up with the word 'misspeak - when trying to explain away her (false) claim to have landed in Bosnia under sniper-fire - I'd never heard the words 'misspeak', 'mispoke' or 'misstatement' before. And I remember being vaguely amused at the way both she and an Obama aide used the new word to create some quite neat contrasts, which were reported in The Independent as follows:

'"I think that, a minor blip, you know, if I said something that, you know, I say a lot of things - millions of words a day* - so if I misspoke it was just a misstatement," she said.

'But an Obama spokesman, Tommy Vietor, noted she made her claims in a scripted speech. "When you make a false claim that's in your prepared remarks, it's not misspeaking, it's misleading."'

By Mr Vietor's critera, David Cameron can at least invoke in his defence the fact that this was not a 'scripted speech'.

But an even bigger mistake than the PM's gaffe arguably came from the Downing Street 'source' who decided to borrow and use this newly invented word, even though it had been created for such a dubious purpose and did little or no good for Mrs Clinton's reputation.

After all, as it said in The Independent, she was 'well ahead in most polls' at the time but her misspoken words had 'eclipsed coverage of her scheduled appearances and threatened to undercut her foreign policy experience message'.

All of which is to warn Mr Cameron and his aides that, when it comes to explaining away a mistake or misdemeanour, misguided memos can cause miscellaneous mishaps, mistakes, misconceptions and misfortune, not to mention quite serious misgivings about your 'foreign policy experience message'.

* "Millions of words a day"?
Mrs Clinton's claim to have been saying "millions of words a day" was also an example of 'misspeaking'.

Assuming she was working an 18 hour day at the time and spoke continuously during her waking hours at 150 words per minute (i.e. half-way between the speed of conversation and speech-making), 2 million words (i.e. 'millions', plural) would require a speaking rate of 1,852 words per minute.

Or, to put it another way, delivering 2 million words at a more normal speed of 150 words per minute would take 222 hours - i.e. 12 eighteen-hour days of non-stop speaking without pausing for a moment.

600 Blogposts: thanks, reflections and requests

I’ve just noticed that the previous post was the 600th since I started the blog in September 2008.

Without a steadily increasing number of visitors, I doubt if I’d have carried on for this long – so many thanks to all of you who've given me an incentive to carry on (at least for a bit longer).

Reaching this landmark prompted me to look more closely than usual at the results from my hidden visitor counter.

Return visits
Particularly encouraging was the discovery that 17% of the visitors to the blog are 'returning visitors' - among whom I should record special thanks to the record-holder, who's now made 478 return visits to the site.

I should also put on record my thanks to leading bloggers like Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes, and John Rentoul - links from whom always result in a spectacular increase in the number of hits.

Google search terms
I've also been reasonably encouraged by what people have typed into Google to find their way here. As you'll see from this list of the most recent ones, they lead people to some of the recurring themes of the blog:
  • Obama 2008 victory speech rhetorics
  • Have you ever been denied a U.S. visa or entry into the U.S.
  • neil kinnock height
  • ceremony Acceptance Speeches
  • cartoons about body language
  • brown book
  • barack obama inauguration speech techniques
  • imagery in speeches
  • debunking body language experts
  • rhetoric + obama's victory speech
  • communication statistics percent body language vs speech
  • does the taller candidate win in UK elections?
  • communication cartoon blog
  • award ceremony speeches in public speaking
  • queen's speach at un july 2010
  • margaret thatcher public image
  • inspiring speeches
  • ronald reagan and teleprompter
  • peter sellers speech about nothing
  • Nelson Mandela Release Speech
  • body language cartoon
  • personification in barack obama inauguration speech
  • statesman speeches
  • margaret thatcher charisma
  • obama;s victory speech analysis
  • lists of three
  • communication is 50% tone,40% body language and 10%
  • rhetoric techniqus used in obama this is our time speech
  • non verbal communication videos
  • "little miss muffet" "dudley moore"
  • margaret thatcher voice training
  • labour leadership candidates in order of height
What's missing?
One thing I notice that doesn't appear in these recent Google searches are words like 'PowerPoint' and 'visual aids', both of which are discussed at length in my recent books and in quite a few blog posts. Also absent are words relating to research into everyday conversation.

So perhaps these are areas on which I should do some more blogging in the weeks and months ahead.

But most important from my point of view would be to hear of any suggestions that you might have about how to improve the blog, and especially about which kinds of post you like the best.

I'd also welcome any ideas about how to attract (and retain) more new visitors to the blog.