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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