Busting the Mehrabian Busters

By June 3, 2011Presentation Skills
We’ve all seen the pie chart. We’ve all heard the numbers. We’ve all wondered “100% of what?”

So it’s no surprise that 47,000 people have watched Creativity Works’ Busting The Mehrabian Myth on Youtube – more than showed up at Old Trafford this season for Manchester United v Wolves. The humorous video seeks to debunk the claim that “when we hear people speaking, only 7% of what we understand comes from the words they use”.

But while it’s great publicity, the attack is flawed in several ways. Let me be clear: I don’t quote the studies so I’m not a target. I just can’t let a bad case pass without comment. I’m sure the busters won’t mind a bit of busting.

1) The Straw Man. I’m a big words person, a former World Masters debating champion, so I’m keen to cheer them on. But Busting takes the argument at its feeblest with the word “understand”. Of course we can “understand” telephone calls better than a video of someone silently mouthing. The customary use of Mehrabian’s chart is to show what happens when there is a disconnect or conflict between the words, sound and sight experienced when you present – that people believe (not understand) what they see first, what they hear second and the literal meaning of the words third. People who make that claim – whether rightly or wrongly – are not debunked by the film. Laughing at alien abductees doesn’t disprove spaceflight.

2) Drawing Unsubstantiated Conclusions – Busting doesn’t support its grand conclusion: “It’s just not true that delivery can make or break a presentation”. Hold your horses! All the film tries to show is that Mehrabian’s findings don’t support his followers’ conclusion. It is absolutely, obviously, blindingly true that delivery can make or break a presentation, as anyone who has ever watched a presentation, ever, will tell you for free. This finding is only marginally better than the next one: “if you concentrate on your performance at the expense of your content, you could fall flat on your face”. Well, yes. Practise both. You wouldn’t learn to tie just one shoelace, would you?

3) Missing the Point – The tag-on conclusions about what works in communication undermine the stated purpose of the film – arguing about Mehrabian’s findings. That task is undertaken in more depth elsewhere – a nice example is between Olivia Mitchell and Bert Decker here. She argues that Mehrabian’s figures relate to the speaker’s perceived attitude toward the listener, and outlines several methodological shortfalls in his work. Decker respectfully disagrees, maintaining that Mehrabian’s findings support his view that where the message is inconsistent, the vocal and visual block the verbal. Busting touches neither of these interpretations.

4) Paradox – this one was unintended, but tickled me. If you believe visuals matter less than words, why did you make a video? A scholarly article read out by a computerised voice over a blank screen would surely have been more persuasive. That’s why Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola spend so little on slick TV advertising, and why voice-over artists command such paltry fees…

The whole film boils down to two sentences:

Mehrabian-lite: “The earth is round because the earth is made of cheese”.

Busting: “No, the earth isn’t made of cheese, so the earth can’t be round”.

Here’s a point we can agree on. As Martin Shovel of Creativity Works says himself, “the most engaging and persuasive communicators – people who are really good at getting their message across – use more imagery and metaphor in their language than other people.” Yes – it matters to paint pictures with language. But guess what? – if your voice is a flat monotone, your body language distracting and your energy low, any creative, image-filled content doesn’t seem to fit. It is incongruent. It is unpersuasive. Whether Mehrabian proved it or not.

The earth is not made of cheese. That doesn’t mean the earth is flat. Even if Busting is right about Mehrabian, and the numbers are bogus, it does not demonstrate that the visual and vocal components of presentation are less important than the words. They all matter. In a world of low energy gravitas and corporate-speak, all three represent an opportunity to shine.

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