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Preying Mantras 2: Taking the body out of body language
14/07/2013 - "Preying Mantras 2: Taking the body out of body language" by Donal Carroll
posted in Managing Value

Preying Mantras (2) Taking the body out of body language

This blog is part of False consciousness: The new opiate of the desperate a broad background to a group of blogs on the limitations of the Personal Development (or Self Help) Industry (PDI) particularly in delivering claims on successful, sustainable business building. It follows Preying Mantras 1 ‘Be Yourself’   

2 ‘When communicating 7% is verbal, the rest is down to body language’

The fast food:

Read: when speaking, how you act physically makes words virtually insignificant[1] Therefore, to be a successful public speaker ‘Be your body!’

 Many PDI ‘courses’ are in ‘inspirational public speaking’ and the above common quote is treated as science. Customers are encouraged to give inordinate attention to every body movement virtually regardless of what is being said. The PDI is a selling environment for both producers and their customers hence the need to engage and convince instantly, which fair enough, customers are urged to do. Unfortunately, without starting with energy and critical rigour in crafting something different to say, or being innovative, customer-focussed, or making it new’, participants are caught in what they already know. And in the new environment they envisage, they can emerge as trite. All the hopeful smiling, full beam confidence and mock-rapporting won’t do it so they resort to claiming. Where you hear someone starting with ‘I’m passionate about… I will inspire you… I’m so excited about being here’, they are PDI graduates. Smile. Claim. Sell. Buy. Buy me. The person and product are (falsely) elided.

The equivalent on tv is people getting huge applause for getting their name right – unearned.   

There is a deliberate avoidance of analysis; or an understanding that ‘inspiration’ is attributed by others rather than claimed. There is little inventiveness or modesty of say, ‘I’ll stop talking before you stop listening’. Confidence outshines competence. Competence, of course can be developed, but that involves much harder, thinking work. If not, there is a death race between the trainee inspirational speaker’s impact and your attention, on the way to the carpet.     

 The wholefood

Let’s go back to the source of the initial quote: that ‘7%’ –what’s your response? Odd surely? In the 60s, Albert Mehrabian, UCLA psychology professor, conducted experiments specifically on the communication of feelings. Communication, he claimed is made up 7%  verbal (words), 38% tone, and 55% facial expression (body language). His key findings: communication involves more than words; the more unified the elements (words, tone, facial expression) the more effective it can be; and if you say ‘terrible’ in a warm, smiling way, people hear ‘great’.

 Now while we all have experience of the word/gesture mismatch (eg people seeming to greet you warmly while looking over your shoulder for anyone more important) it doesn’t take long for us to interpret a mismatch - in this case, realising they don’t really care. Similarly, in all communication, the meaning is never entirely owned by speaker. This understanding alone, an invitation to be far less self-centred, would be far valuable to any public speaker than any amount of coaching in body language. 

 Managing the (renewed) mantra

1 Take the body out of body language

  • Reflect on your own communication experience: are your stats the opposite of Mehrabian’s – why not?

  • Ask others, for instance with sarcasm like ‘Of course, you’re so wonderful, aren’t you’ how long does it take to recognise the ‘untruth’ –that words/tone (regardless of expression) mean their opposite?

  • Ask how difficult is it to spot the gap between words used and how they are expressed (eg unconvincingly, going through the motions) –and how you can’t make sense, ie get the real meaning without starting with the words?   

  • Do your own thinking work: read the full research (not very long). Mehrabian made clear his findings were not a general rule for any communication and that unless someone is talking about their feelings or attitudes, the equations are not applicable

  • Demand better teachers everywhere, not just in PDI delivery. Shouldn’t they be qualified a teachers??

  • For your own public speaking: Find something worth saying; craft insights from your business journey; find thick learning (See: Managing Value in Organisations: New Learning, Management and Business Models Make words the body of your message -take them to the gym, make them fit for purpose and get outside your training environment. Above all, get feedback and find a way of trusting your customers  

  • Use some of the really good stuff for instance, Chris Anderson’s ‘How to give a killer presentation/Lessons from TED’ (HBR June 2013) on how words always trump ‘body language’: ‘Getting the words, story and substance right is a much bigger determinant of success or failure than how you stand –or whether you’re visibly nervous’.   

  • Put some gin back into the imagination: a VP friend of mine when leaving his organisation after 30 years started his farewell speech saying how he was going to ‘right a longstanding wrong’ but at the end of the speech. This ensured everybody  listened well! He did ‘right the wrong in an elegant, erudite, exciting way (a song!)leaving everyone with a wise smile on their face. At the end I can still see him punching the air! Words 93%, body language 7%. Sounds the rightway round. Try it.

 But of course you don’t have to agree. Let us know your experience. Challenges and comments welcome

[1] To be fair, the actual research is: words (7%), tone (38%) and 55% facial expression (body language)



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