Sophistry? No, just a misunderstanding

Tell them what they want to hear?

I heard an item on the radio a few weeks ago which concerned the Perse School in Cambridge which appears to reward pupils for lying. See jackontheweb page. The idea is to reward misbehaving pupils if they come up with fast and creative excuses for their misdemeanours. An example was given where a boy blamed his lateness on his becoming absorbed reading a particular book: the chosen book was of course a favourite of the teacher to whom the excuse was being given.

A specialist in public speaking suggested that, in the example, initiative had been shown in seeking to understand the audience but he also seemed to agree with a notion that “Telling them what they want to hear” was an admirable thing to do.

It was a light-hearted item, but it has stuck in my mind that what seemed to be being promoted here – if it is not lying – is sophistry.  Sophistry can be defined as “a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading” .

Designing for an audience

In designing messages to persuade people, researching and understanding your audience is of course essential. It enables you to be clear about the behaviour you seek to affect, and to choose anecdotes, examples or pieces of evidence which are meaningful and relevant to that audience. But you would normally be admonished if you set out to deceive by using untruths (lying) or specious or fallacious reasoning (sophistry).

Accepted truths are not always true

The trouble is that we may say untruths believing them to be true. It is not uncommon to hear people refer to these “accepted truths”. Readers of this blog will I am sure be able to point to a myriad of “accepted truths” which particularly irritate them and infect the business or society they work within.

There is one that is often quoted misleadingly in the world of public speaking and rhetoric. It irritates me.  And judging by the number of hits on the internet, there are an awful lot of people as irritated as me from across the globe……..

The myth about non-verbal communication

It is a set of statistics related to “verbal and non-verbal communication”. They are usually stated as…. “Communication is:  7% words,  55% is body language and 38% tone”.  If you are lucky, you might be given the source of the research which gives rise to these statistics – Professor Mehrabian of UCLA. If so you will be able to discover that it is frequently (and normally) misquoted by taking his research conclusions entirely out of context.

Max Atkinson, a well known public speaking and presentation coach commented on the Radio 4 programme “Word of Mouth” some months ago that it should be “so obvious that this is not a correct statement”. He further commented that if you get the words right, the rest by and large should follow.

Putting it in context

Professor Mehrabian himself is alarmed by the frequent misunderstanding and mis-application of the research findings. As he himself says: “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

I rather liked the way that Olivia Mitchell debunks this myth about verbal and non-verbal communication because she takes it a step further by exploring Mehrabian’s method of research. See her excellent post on the subject.

She concludes “So if we limit the formula to the specific conditions of the experiments, it is only applicable if:

  • a speaker is using only one word,
  • their tone of voice is inconsistent with the meaning of the word, and
  • the judgement  being made is about the feelings of the speaker.

In other words, in the real world, Mehrabian’s formula is almost never applicable.

So, full circle

Clearly, none of us would dispute the fact that communication is not limited to the words we use. But to quote the formula as if it were a universal truth is a deception. I must and do believe that the many people in the business of training and coaching in the spoken word who misquote Professor Mehrabian’s formula do so out of ignorance – a misunderstanding rather than sophistry.

 

 

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No smoke without fire

How you start matters most

One of the most difficult parts of designing a presentation (or speech) is deciding upon and delivering the first few words you say. These will determine whether your audience will feel benign towards you and whether they will be receptive to you and your ideas – and attentive to your presentation. So the success of your message hinges upon these initial words (and the manner in which they are delivered). As Cicero put it in De Oratore  “For they bid us open in such a way as to win the goodwill of the listener and make him receptive and attentive.” Knowing exactly what you are going to say at the outset will also do wonders for your own confidence.

The power of the “Eye”

So, for any public speaking or presentation, I would advise you to spend significant effort and time in getting this initial part well tuned to the tone you wish to create with your audience. My great friend and colleague Willie Macnair who runs The Rhetorical Company (and devised a tool called the “Kipper” for the design of messages) calls this part of the message “the Eye” and this is either the very first thing you say or, if your audience does not know you, it may follow immediately after your welcome and self-introduction.

The danger

The criticality of the “Eye” was brought home to me recently when a delegate on a 2-day course I had run commented (amidst I hasten to say – and thankfully – some very complimentary comments) that I had not got the tone right at the beginning of the course. I know why. I had added, on the fly, some words to the “Eye” I had designed and these extra bits referred to me and my business. They were delivered on the spur of the moment (dangerous!!) and intended to be light hearted. But I know so well that talking about yourself is never a good idea, and can be disastrous if done during the opening words or “Eye” of a presentation (or course). I thank the delegate concerned – it was a salutary reminder to someone who should know better!

Human response

And this leads to something which reflects the title of this blog. I thought long and hard about whether to cover this point but decided, at the risk of upsetting some people and appearing hypocritical to others, to do so. My friend Mike the Mentor gave me the resolve to “publish and be damned”.

As humans, sight and sound are by far our most important senses, and one can easily dismiss lower order senses such as taste, touch and smell. However the first impressions you make when you start your presentation – including how physically you take up your position – are massively important. One can argue that they all contribute to the “Eye”. Those first impressions are certainly going to create, reinforce or destroy your personal “ethos”, and they include all the impressions created and received through all senses.

And that includes smell.

To the point

I have been a smoker all my life until in 2011 I had a replacement hip operation and used the 5 days in hospital to begin to break that habit of my lifetime. I am not going to pretend it was easy, but neither was it over-facing. During a year of abstinence I have become increasingly conscious of how smokers are actually tolerated quite well in our society. But also how they are not necessarily tolerated – most particularly in the way they smell – when it comes to making discretionary decisions about business. I am very clear in my mind that as a sole practitioner in professional services I have lost business as a result of my smoking. Arriving at a meeting to discuss an opportunity carrying the thick and acrid smell of tobacco in one’s clothes or breath is not a good idea. And mints don’t make it go away. It does all come down to first impressions – both from physical signals and verbal messages.

If you are a smoker and in a professional services business, and you don’t want to lose new business unnecessarily, do please think this through. Physical health may be a good objective. If it doesn’t work for you, perhaps business health might act as a motivator.