Eyes vs Ears and muscles

Our world

We live in a world suffused with all kinds of messaging – from Tweets to worthy legal documents and spoken word interviews and the like – and everything in between.       

The question is – do we understand how different media demand different styles and structures of communications?


I was contacted by someone in India recently who had come across a version of the Kipper (a tool for the design of spoken word messages the IP of which I happen to own) and she had assumed I think that it could be applied, without adjustment, to written word design. Not so, it does actually require significant adjustment.

So, I thought I should create a mini-blog post focused on this matter.

My mentor and teacher Willie Macnair used to say:

“Eyes have muscles but ears don’t”

The difference

Exactly! The major difference between designing messages for the spoken word and the written word hinges upon understanding of how the human senses and brain work.

In the spoken word, the speaker is in control over the sequence and speed of delivery of the ideas – the argument. In the written word, the reader is in control, over the speed and sequence in which phrases are read and understood. An obvious example of this is that a reader of a document may (and often does) choose to read the end of the document first.

This fundamental difference means that the structure of spoken word messages is different from written word messages. Let us touch on one of these key differences.

The Kipper® tool

I want to focus on 2 components of the Kipper® structure for spoken word messages:  the “Eye-opener” and the “Big idea”. In the spoken word Kipper®, the Eye-opener represents the first few words you say that gives your audience a compelling reason to listen and generates goodwill. The Big Idea is the fundamental proposition you are making in order to drive the behaviour you seek and in the Kipper structure are the last words you say.

People who do not fully understand spoken word message design will sometimes say that you should proclaim your “Big Idea” at the beginning of your message. This is usually wrong. The whole idea of the deliberative Kipper® is to take your audience through an emotional, logical, and psychological journey to buy in to your main idea. Remember as a speaker, you are in control. So, in most cases it would be quite wrong to advertise your “Big Idea” at the beginning.

Clearly  though, with the written word, the reader is not constrained by the sequence in which ideas are delivered – so it is probably essential that the main idea is articulated at the outset (before the eyes move off) – the subsequent ideas and evidence simply designed to support your contention.


It is not surprising that political debate and argument in the UK is so lacking. I understand that most political speech writers are journalists by training – brilliant at the written word. They will give you a headline, then a succinct expansion of the headline, then an overview of the argument of the case, followed by more detail of the case. This is good journalistic style.

But real spoken word persuasion comes from a different construct based upon capturing your audience through interest and relevance and then taking them through the journey to buy in to a final conclusion or Big Idea. It is, if you like, the craft of inspiring to action – or as the ancients would say – “deliberative rhetoric”.


So, please remember – if you are dealing with the spoken word, you as a speaker are in control over delivery and receipt (even if you are you being interviewed on the Today programme!) If you commit something to writing, you have given away control to the reader. Know which you are designing your message for.

Eyes have muscles; but ears don’t!

It’s becoming a bit of a habit!


In talking with senior executives recently from a global Systems Integrator, the discussion was full of “I want my people to be able to….” and “I want my people to stop reacting badly or panicking when faced with….”

We had started our conversation on more familiar territory – exploring classroom-based skills development that had worked very well previously. “We liked what you did for us previously around relationship development and want something similar for our current teams”.

But what was now intriguing was that these executives were sharply focused on extending the capabilities of their highly technical experts in non-technical areas – in particular the areas of empathy, listening skills, resolving tensions and clear influential communication. All those so-called “soft skills”.

“They know the technology inside-out. They are the industry experts. But they lose people as soon as they dive into that technical detail. They don’t connect with, let alone excite, the other people in the room.”

Specific goals

More than once they explained their goals along the lines of …

“I wish my technical people knew….

  • how to tune into another person’s wavelength more naturally. “
  • how to adapt their style to other people”.
  • how to feel comfortable managing tensions and conflicts in the professional context.”

It should come as no surprise to us that the skills and behaviours they seek have become essential in the virtual Covid19 world. There have been many case studies and scholarly articles that articulate this permanent shift.

The solution

Getting into new habits. Habits that promote meaningful relationships. 

Having collaborated previously, we – namely Gareth Bunn Consulting and Influence and Persuade – joined forces to evolve our on-site training courses and materials into virtual bite-sized sessions, each delivering a specific relationship development outcome.

By reframing our thinking and starting from the point of: “On completion of this module, you will be able to….”, we have moved the learning of business relationship management skills on to ‘hard’ outcomes. As you would imagine our Kipper® methodology figures in a number of them. In fact, when combined, the new modules lay the path to achieving the 5 habits of mastering business relationships:

Habits 1

  • Manage perceptions
  • Drive to action
  • Communicate clearly
  • Diagnose effectively
  • Deliver strongly

This “turning things upside down” has created a suite of ‘virtual modules’. With all sessions only 90 minutes long or less, and very interactive, building up the 5 habits can be done at the speed of, and to the right level for, each individual team.

A “Pick and Mix” approach

You select the specific outcomes you want from a current list of 30.

Habits 2

It’s the new ‘Pick & Mix’ approach to personal and team development.

30 modules with clear outcomes that can be packaged into highly customised programmes for specific team needs.

Habits 3

And as we continually seek further outcomes we can enable, let us know your suggestions.

The result

Say goodbye to the days of technical experts struggling to connect with non-technical people.

Say hello to technical experts being able to master business relationships effortlessly.

If those executive concerns mirror your current people development challenges, contact us to see how the ‘Pick & Mix’ approach can work for your organisation in a virtual world.

Gareth Bunn: gareth@garethbunnconsulting.co.uk

Amanda MacAuley: amanda@influenceandpersuade.net

Habits 4

Transforming real to virtual

The zoomchange

When we set about changing our classroom training courses into on-line versions, we assumed it would be relatively straightforward – that it would be simply a matter of re-packaging the material to be presented on-line.

However, our experience over recent months suggests that it is much more of a transformation, but one which does draw upon very similar design and delivery principles.

A recent experience

We (working with Amanda MacAuley of Influence and Persuade) recently ran some on-line (Zoom based) training on the subject of “Presentations” for a group of MA students from a London university. They were “young”, bright, and diverse. The participants were from 9 different countries and 8 different mother tongues.

Our approach is to avoid limiting our training to “how to present well”. The art of good presentation, oratory, speeches, lies in meticulous design. It is about understanding how to design and structure what you are going to say to have the impact that you intend.

Surprisingly, the theory of communication and the tools available do not change. The three styles of rhetoric drawn from the Classics have just as much relevance today – you need to choose the style (or combination) that is appropriate to what you are trying to achieve: detailed understanding, emotional response, or persuasion to future action.

And, given how important the creation of long-term memory is to affect future behaviour, we spent some time on understanding how the brain works in the creation of memory. It does not matter what culture or language we are talking about, the process of the creation of memory to induce action is always the same. – and there are many points of failure. That is why we teach the Kipper® method for the design of presentations, meetings, and workshops. And we use the Kipper® to design virtual training sessions.


So, where are the differences? You will be aware that virtual environments like Zoom and Microsoft Teams do not provide the same experience as a real meeting or classroom. One of the aspects that I find particularly difficult is the inability to read gestures and expressions. You can scan a real audience very quickly and accurately – and because participants can see when you are looking at them, they immediately react with facial and body language signals. This is not possible in a virtual environment with many participants. As well as interactions being much harder, so also is the setting up of exercises and practical sessions. Individual follow-on tutorials are one of the best ways to ensure consolidation of learning.


Let us return to similarities. We have found that all the things you would choose to build into a traditional classroom training course need to be adopted in virtual sessions – it is just that the means of achievement changes. A few examples:

  • To be effective and “click” with your participants, you need to know as much as possible about them so that your examples are relevant to them and your participants can make memory connections.
  • You need to build in frequent breaks – because concentrating on a Zoom session is hard and draining. 3-5 minutes break at the half hour point is a good aim. You should keep the maximum length of a session to 1 hour.
  • Give participants the right to disable video for periods to give them a rest from continuous gaze.
  • Encourage participants to use the chat facility if anything is unclear or an unfamiliar term used.
  • Build in interactive sessions – we find that Mentimeter is a very good tool for enabling interactions and for testing understanding through mini-quizzes and surveys. There are other more sophisticated services which can embrace tools like Mentimeter. CoCreate is an example.
  • Where English is not the first language of participants, you might wish to increase the word content of slides used – but always segue to the new slide by giving the idea beforehand and telling them what they are going to see.
  • Ensure you provide a clear Introduction to the session. Those familiar with the Kipper® tool for designing presentations will recognise this as the “Head” of the Kipper®.
  • Ensure participants understand the objectives and structure of the session – so that at any point, they know where they are and where they are going.


You need to put a lot of time and effort into preparing and designing a virtual session and then in technical and “dress” rehearsals. We have reckoned that for every hour of virtual training some 25-30 hours will be required in prep and design even if the core material was already available from previous classroom-based courses. It really is not as simple as taking PowerPoint supported training sessions and running them through Zoom. And please do not ditch things you would naturally do in a real environment just because they are hard – find ways to replicate or substitute for them.

The sound of silence – 25%

If you thought that persuasion was geared to words only – think again! But please avoid the well-debunked Professor Mehrabian formula (and refuted by him himself). See previous blog.

I have done a couple of posts about silence and its role in persuasive communication. Pauses matter. I can quote Mozart [“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between”], and Churchill’s speeches as visualised by Paul de Monchaux in his sculpture Song [“the spaces around words can amplify their meaning”]

The above photo is taken from a workshop run by Amanda MacAuley and me about Compelling Data Storytelling. The whiteboard background is how I proved that 25% of any presentation should be silence.

Food for thought? Space for thought!

Duty of care in the supply chain – who has the need?


I do want this blog to stimulate some discussion and I hope legal opinion. Mind you, legality is a much lesser issue than ethics or morality. I simply want to state a case on behalf of SMEs and micro businesses. And it is fundamentally to do with communication.

Honesty and an apology

Do you ever wonder where you sit in a supply chain and why it is that people you would expect would communicate honestly do not? I do, and sometimes feel ashamed of the way in which I treated small companies and individual contractors when I had an Executive role in a big corporate. To all of those to whom I might have shown disrespect in the past I apologise profoundly. I now know what happens and also why – but why is not the subject of this blog.

Treatment of suppliers and CSR

A few years ago a large company to which I am a (very small) supplier insisted that any supplier to them should have a published CSR and Sustainability policy. Although it seemed an onerous expectation of a micro business providing coaching and training services, I did take it seriously and decided to define such a policy for my company. What better than to start with that customer’s own policy statement as a template? I looked at this carefully and decided I could adopt much of it but would go one step better when it came to dealing with my own suppliers and sub-contractors. So, my policy includes this phrase:

“We undertake to offer equivalent or better terms for any sub-contracted resources and we commit to timely payments of their invoices.”

Many of my friends thought that this stance was commercially stupid – I would end up taking the risk on debts from big companies. But I disagreed – and still do. Businesses are ultimately judged in the market by how they treat their suppliers as much as – and I believe ultimately more than – their end customers. This becomes their “ethos”. It reflects what they believe. Simon Sineks’s video about “Starting with Why?” also testifies to the truth of this. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. “

Recent context

The recent publicity about Tesco and their alleged poor historical treatment of their suppliers (including delaying payment of invoices) is testimony to this argument. Press coverage in January 2016 suggested that whereas Tesco had improved behaviours in recent months, there were other upmarket high street names (one that has always been my shopping favourite, oh dear) that lagged behind Tesco’s’ recent commitment to 14 days’ payment terms to their small suppliers.

Customer or supplier

There is, though, another piece of argument that I need to probe. It is the concept of “customer”. It strikes me that, when looking at classical retail structures in a competitive market, the customer supplier relationship is clearly demarked. The customer (actually consumer) has a need or want; the supplier provides against that requirement. In other words, the “need” is with the purchaser. And consumer law backs the purchaser – the person with the need.

But in some commercial relationships, the opposite can apply. If the buyer is a big corporate and the supplier is an SME or micro-business, the need, especially when it comes to communication and a fair commercial relationship, is with the supplier of the product or service.


Let me illustrate. I run a micro business providing training and coaching services to a big corporate. I need a high level of trusted communication (and relationship) from that customer so that I can plan my business financially and commercially. (Let us ignore the repeated delays in payment of invoices which are an irritation and cost to me.) The key thing is that an unexpected termination of a rolling contract or repeated cancellations or postponements could have a significant damaging impact upon my company. I believe in this instance that the customer owes a duty of care to the supplier – my company. So, timely communication of requirements and forecast is an obligation upon the purchaser of the products or services I provide to them.

But is that the way we are treated? Unfortunately, it is not. Big corporates are the worst. They care enormously about what their customers think of them (of course it has a direct affect upon their trading) but have little regard for the way they treat their suppliers (especially small ones). And, in this instance, if protection in law is needed, it is protection of the supplier as opposed to the customer that matters.

A reflection

Tesco appears to have recognised its supply chain responsibilities and the importance of their reputation in the wider market. The consulting and technology sector (the one I know best) should turn the same mirror upon itself.

The original Duty of Care legal precedent is worthy of a reminder. It referred to “acts or omissions which could reasonably be foreseen could cause injury to their “neighbour “.  “Neighbour” was broadly drawn and I understand that under English law it applies providing there is a contract in place.  So, “neighbour” includes supplier, does it not?  So, please, on behalf of smaller suppliers – let’s have some Duty of Care!

Humanity in communication


People have been giving and receiving presentation skills training for years (actually several millennia) and in that time there have surely been some changes in what might be regarded as a “good” presentation. But I did think that the sort of course which abounded in the 1990s, typically extolling the style adopted by photocopier salespeople, would have disappeared by now.

Apparently not. I was startled to hear from some participants on one of my communications skills courses that they had recently attended a course in which they had been advised that:

  • making mistakes in delivery was never acceptable (because it would appear unprofessional)
  • movement and gesture should be minimised (because it was regarded as distracting or unprofessional)
  • it was not acceptable to refer to a note (because this would show that you were not on top of your subject)

So I thought I should reassure those whose aspirations are not to become completely robotic that humanity really can have a place in the business world.

The components of communication

People are persuaded by other people. True communication is the product of both message and personality of the speaker. One multiplies the other. And of course, the listeners also need pauses in which they can interpret, understand and create memory. The formula that Willie Macnair of the Rhetorical Company coined was: C = M x P + S. C is for Communication, M for Message, P for Personality and S is for Spaces or Silence. I still use it because it is so true.

Let us have a look at what personality means in this context. It is the believability of the speaker, the energy and passion conveyed. It is the cocktail of attributes that makes you want to believe the speaker. To quote from Simon Sinek – “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. The personality conveys why you can believe the speaker. It embraces both your reputation or ethos and your presence in delivery. This presence is created initially in the Head of the presentation.

As Cicero put it – “… open in such a way as to win the goodwill of the listener and make him receptive and attentive”. So, let us return to the three points of unfortunate guidance quoted above, and ask some questions.


Does being perfect in delivery make you more believable?

No it does not. Being too slick creates mistrust. Losing your way on occasions and getting the odd word wrong, or occasionally struggling to find the right word, all show that you are human and therefore authentic. Let us consider a situation when a team is presenting and one of the speakers loses his or her way. If other members of the team help out and get the speaker back on track, it shows that this really is a team that care for each other as well as the audience. So, please don’t try and be too perfect!


Do we find people with energy boring?

Of course not. Audiences respond well to energy and excitement generated by a speaker. This will be transmitted by natural movement and gesture. It stands to reason that constraining movement and gesture will undermine the natural transmission of personality. What a waste!

Different people use different amounts of physical movement. So, if you are a relatively static person, forced gestures will appear exactly that – forced and untrue. If you tend to move or gesture a lot then this is who you are and the person the audience wants to see. So, be true to yourself.


Does using a note suggest you are ignorant or incompetent?

No. Many public speakers use notes, and sometimes autocues. There is nothing wrong with preparing and using a note, providing the speaker does not disengage from the audience and start to read from the note. Engagement – eye contact and shoulder movement – is essential in involving your audience.

I find it ironic that the people who are critical of the use of notes are often people who will display slide after slide of PowerPoint and read what is on the slides. In other words, they are using the projection as their own note. Now that is an odd behaviour!

Make sure that your note – the paper on which it is written – is not a distraction to your audience. Keep it small or leave it on a table and move over to it only when you need to. If you are using a prepared speech text, the sequence to adopt in delivery should be: read and memorise selection, re-engage with audience, pause, speak the words, pause, refer to note, read and memorise and so on. I have to admit though, this is extremely hard to do!

Referring occasionally to a note compliments the audience because the speaker has taken the trouble to prepare their talk. In addition, referring back to a note when quoting evidence – a fact or figure or quotation – shows that you want to get it right. In other words you will be much more believable as a result of your reference to the note.


The word professional is often used as an adjective to aspire to. I am not quite sure what people mean by it. Certainly, it should address ethics, beliefs and attitudes (the Why).  But please let us not interpret the word in a way which would mean we veer towards being over-controlled, inauthentic, or boring. People are persuaded by people. We are, after all, human. So let humanity in ….. let humanity win.

Golden Circle


It is not uncommon for insights drawn from one domain to be startlingly relevant to another. Indeed human creativity can be seen to be geared to making connections between otherwise independent and unconnected ideas. It is what we do in our working memory. So I thought to share with you some connections between Simon Sinek’s insights and the subject of this blog – presentation design and delivery. They might just affect the way you tackle your next presentation.

The Golden Circle

A participant on one of my training courses commented about having been inspired by Simon Sinek’s TED video on what he calls the Golden Circle. Co-incidentally I had downloaded this video a few weeks previously because it resonated so much with my work in the field of leadership and communication. The result was that there were many parallels drawn and references made throughout the course to the subject of the TED (the “Why” question).

I do recommend a viewing of his talk. It is inspiring and its simplicity speaks to us all. One of his mantras is that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. He argues that companies and people who understand and communicate in this way tend to be the successful ones.


It does seem that many companies are almost exclusively focused on the “what we do” rather than “why we do it” and having spent many years in the Consultancy and IT Services sector it is clear to me that this has led to the rather dull sameness of many companies in this sector when viewed from the outside. They espouse (or say they do) much the same values, have tag-lines which are almost identical and use methods and approaches which are pretty much indistinguishable. You see the result in company brochures, fliers, credential statements and written proposals.

This is not to say that, within companies, smaller groups with more visionary leaders do not exist. They do. But I would suggest that often their pursuit of the “why” question is not understood or even tolerated by managers who have been groomed in the “what” and “how” world, so may not always survive the corporate mill. I have though also seen some very successful and highly motivated teams inside companies – and the distinguishing feature is their sense of purpose (“why”).

As an aside, the public sector is, I believe, much more in tune with the “why we do it” way of thinking. I would suggest that there can be, as a result, something of a tension when functions and responsibilities are moved from the public to the private sector, and the “why” element becomes obscured and effectively replaced by the “what and how”.

I remember a senior executive in the Rail industry saying to me that you could create a contract for anything and that therefore any service could be delivered under a contract. I disagreed with him then, and I would still. Contracts are great for “what” and “how”. But even the much vaunted “outcome based” contracts cannot really deal with “why”.

Relevance to message design

In relating the Golden Circle thinking to message design and presentations, there are many intersections. I mention a few here.

Why am I giving it?

The first question to ask before designing a presentation is to ask the question “Why am I giving it?” Many people asked this might offer “to share knowledge or information”. But it rarely is just that. In the vast majority of cases, when you really think it through, the purpose of a presentation is to affect the future actions of an audience. Otherwise, what is the point?

That future behaviour or action is where your presentation must lead, so it is the starting point in design of your message. Presentations of this sort are fundamentally about persuasion. People are persuaded (and make decisions) on an emotional rather than rational basis. As Simon Sinek points out, decisions are made in the limbic part of the brain.

Why should they listen?

In a business setting, turn your ideas into the form where your audience is, as far as possible, the subject of discourse, not yourself or your company. People like to be talked about; they like their issues to be discussed. They do not like to have to endure generic descriptions of methodologies or technical specifications, unless they have specifically asked for that. See my previous posting on “Forensic delivery”.

An audience will be encouraged (or not) to listen and be attentive within the first few seconds of your presentation. So make sure you have a good “Eye” – and make it about them!

Why is it true?

Assertions do not convince on their own; evidence and examples in presentations are about answering the “Why?” questions. Indeed those of you acquainted with the “Kipper” structure for design of presentations created by Willie Macnair of the Rhetorical Company will know that the left hand side of the “middle” is concerned with points, propositions and ideas. They create (or should) in the audience’s minds one of two responses: “Why is that then?” or “OK, but now prove it….” And that is what the right hand side does with evidence and examples.

Why should they care?

If you are going to engage emotionally with your audience, make it about them. The only really important people are the audience. The presenter is there only for them. As Simon Sinek says about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the crowd turning up were not doing it for him – they were doing it for themselves.

Thank you, Simon.

Forensic delivery – a part of selling

Context and purpose

Having run training courses in communications and coached bid teams for many years, I set up this blog with the intention of passing on insights and tips associated with the design of the spoken word – essentially presentation design and delivery. This particular blog is really intended for people who have attended one of my company’s courses – Gareth Bunn Consulting Limited – (or The Rhetorical Company’s). If you have, you will understand the “kipper” – a tool for the design of messages devised by Willie Macnair and based on classical rhetoric. You will probably also have been introduced to the three main styles of rhetoric, two of which are relevant to this blog – “deliberative” and “forensic”.

I must also thank Willie Macnair for his commentary on my first draft of this piece. This is a summarised version.

Deliberative style

We tend to focus on the “deliberative” style of rhetoric – where the objective is to persuade others to specific future behaviour. This is applicable to most circumstances in business not least to business development – selling.

A complication in business development

Procurement processes though often make the design of presentations extremely difficult. This is partly because the presentation can sometimes be deemed (unhelpfully) to be a part of the bid documentation. In other words the presentation is regarded as, primarily, a visual production rather than aural – a projected document augmented with an opportunity to interrogate! However inappropriate this might be, we have to respect the expectations of a client and its advisors.

Design for the purpose

Different styles of presentation may be effective at different points in the selling process. It is essential therefore that the audience analysis undertaken by the bid team includes and thoroughly assesses the objectives of each interaction or presentation from the perspective of the client. This will determine not just the content and style but also the presenting team.

Typically, the initial stages and the final stages of a procurement will be more orientated to people, personalities and persuasion. This fits well with the deliberative style. However, during the central parts of the procurement there may be a stronger focus on technical content. This may demand more of a “forensic” style to afford the richness in content.

Helping your audience through detail

The spoken word is not great for detail, so it is likely that visual aids – models or diagrams of architectures, processes, spatial layout etc. will be needed to enable understanding. In addition, if your objective is to create long term memory, and bearing in mind the rule of 3, you will need to think creatively about what will help an audience preserve the “shape of things”. Spatial representations – maps and models – are especially useful. Do though bear in mind that “less is more” and an audience can cope with only a limited amount of detail.

You can build in the detail – for example explaining a complex technical solution or describing a multi-stage process – using workshops and walk-through sessions. These can be components of the event designed using the “kipper” approach for team messages.

Forensic design using the “kipper” – some pointers

You may decide to configure an entire “kipper” in forensic style. In this case, I suggest you take on board the following.

  • Ensure the Head is complete. Just as with the deliberative style, it is vital for your audience. The piece which may be different is Structure. Instead of 3 labels, tell and show your audience how they will be able to navigate the component parts of your presentation.
  • The Body of the presentation may not fit the 3-bones structure – there may be a greater number of steps. But it is still important to remind your audience (verbally and visually) where they are at the beginning of each step. Use mini-summaries at the end of each main step.
  • Use visual aids where they will be helpful in explaining concepts. Keep these as simple and uncluttered as possible. Before you show the visual aid, describe the points you are making and let your audience know what they are going to see and what to look for. Note that hand drawn flipcharts or whiteboards, are often a welcome relief to projected slides.
  • Design a handout for the audience to take away and refer to. This is not the same as a simple paper copy of the visual aids. Additional material – narrative and textual description – is most likely to be needed. Design a document!
  • The Tail needs to include a Summary of the kipper. Try and stick to the words and phrases you have used during the presentation. The purpose of the Summary is to remind the audience of the journey they have been through and reassure them it has been complete, believable and relevant – i.e. it “ticks all the boxes”.
  • The Big Idea is much the same as in a deliberative kipper, although one subtle difference is that it may not contain a verb in the imperative. Rather than “So… make your aspirations real” it may be “So, your aspirations made real”. In other words it is a statement of QED – case proven.
  • Build in consolidation. Often the technical or forensic parts of a team message are needed for the acceptance of later deliberation. It is often valuable to ensure that those parts have been assimilated beforehand. So, design in some consolidation in the form of an exercise or a discussion before moving to the next part of the event. Seek confirmation at the end that you have indeed “ticked all the boxes”.

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.



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.