Showcase your idea, service or product for free

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Philosophical niceties aside, it doesn’t matter how good your idea, service or product is – if no one sees it, it might as well not exist.

In a world dominated by social media and the internet, the golden fleece of visibility is the viral video. Creating an online video that others enjoy, and want to share, is the communications equivalent of winning the lottery.

But can a viral video be made to order? Is there a magic formula we can follow that will enable us to produce one? Of course not, because a viral video, by definition, is always going to be something that stands out from the crowd.

Creating viral videos may not be an exact science, but it’s not an entirely random activity either! When we worked on our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ animation we intended to create something that would appeal to specialist and non-specialist alike. In line with our communications ethos, we attempted to make an animation that was engaging, persuasive and memorable.

Almost a year later, I think we can claim a modest success. ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ has been viewed nearly 30,000 times in less than a year – which is pretty good going for a niche video about a relatively obscure piece of communications research. And when we started working with our client on ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ – the custom video I blogged about last week– we had the same aim in mind.

And yesterday the client who commissioned ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ called us with some encouraging news. She had just sent the animation to Project Manager Today – one of the industry’s leading magazines – and they liked it. In fact, they liked it so much they immediately posted it on their website and offered her the chance to write a piece about her company, which would feature the animation too.

So what is it about our animation that opened the door to such valuable free publicity for our client? I have a hunch it may be more than just the cartoon element…

Here are a few of the tips we give our clients when we begin the process of writing a script with them – they don’t add up to a comprehensive answer, but they’re a useful start:

The gift
Offer your audience something of genuine value – with no strings attached. Share a useful technique or insight with them – or simply set out to give them an enjoyable and amusing experience.

Keep it Simple
Turn the fact that you’ve only got one or two minutes to make your point into a positive advantage – think of the video as your online elevator pitch. Step outside your professional/specialist mindset and put your audience first. If your video can hold the attention of a twelve year old, you’re probably on the right track. Keep your language simple and visual – and avoid jargon!

Use metaphor
Translate your specialist knowledge into everyday analogies that are capable of conveying the idea and feel of what you’re saying to a non-specialist audience. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in our experience fellow professionals/specialists appreciate this approach too – think of Project Manager Today’s enthusiastic response to ‘The Project Manager’s Story’.

And finally,
Tell a story
We all love a story – and stories are a great way of shaping content, and making people care about it. The classic problem/solution – headache/aspirin – narrative structure can be an effective way of creating interest in your product or service.

Whether you’re writing a video/animation script or working on your elevator pitch, if you apply these tips, it’ll give your message a fighting chance of distinguishing itself from the competition – and, who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to produce something that infects your audience and goes viral!

The premiere of our latest animation

Crack open the champagne and pass the canapés – we’ve just finished our first ever custom animation! And after you’ve watched it, I’d like to share a few thoughts about it with you.

Last July when we uploaded our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ to YouTube we had no idea just how much of a splash it would make. We certainly didn’t expect a niche video on the subject of nonverbal communication to attract nearly 28,000 viewers (and rising) in less than a year. And the thought of making custom animations hadn’t crossed our minds.

But a lot has happened over the last year. Our ‘Mehrabian’ animation has proved a boon for our business – and brand visibility – and has created a number of unexpected opportunities for us. In January, for example, we ran a two-day communications workshop in Athens for one of Greece’s leading executive coaching companies. It was a wonderful experience that came about simply because someone in the company had come across our video while surfing the net.

The popularity of our animation has also helped us link up with other communications professionals around the world, as well as giving a healthy, and sustained, boost to the flow of traffic to our website. Last September we were invited to give a talk and show our animation at the inaugural Speechwriters’ Guild Conference, and we’ve been invited to contribute to this year’s conference too.

However, one of the most exciting – yet unexpected – things ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ has done for us is to generate a steady stream of custom video enquiries. The thought that making animations could become an important part of what we offer to clients has taken a little time to sink in but having now successfully completed our first custom animation, we’re open for business. In fact, we’re already working on our second custom animation for another client.

Please add a comment to this blog after you’ve watched ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ because we’d love to know what you think of it…cheers!

Going for Laughs in a Speech is no Joke

A joke is a blunt instrument. If it works, there’s laughter; if it flops, there’s an embarrassed silence. A misfiring joke can can spell disaster for the rest of your speech.

The public persona – or ethos – created by your speech can also be compromised by the use of jokes. After all, jokes aren’t meant to be taken seriously and – by implication – neither are the people who tell them. We use phrases like, “it’s just a joke,” or, “I’m only joking” to play down the consequences of things we say and do. And if we don’t respect someone, we describe them as “a joke.”

But if jokes are to be avoided, what are we left with? The answer is wit. Wit is a rapier to joke’s bludgeon. Wit is a sophisticated intellectual compared to its naive country cousin, the joke. Wit isn’t bothered about making you laugh, it has a greater ambition, it wants to make you think.

Wit is the ability to find just the right words to express similarities between things that would usually be thought of as very different from each other. And when wit hits the mark, humour – even laughter – often follows in its wake, but is never its main purpose.

Winston Churchill was a man noted for his wit; and following his humiliating defeat to Clement Attlee in the postwar election of 1945, he unleashed his scathing wit on his victorious opponent. The two men were opposites. Attlee was slight, very quiet and unassuming, and had the look of a pen-pushing minor bureaucrat; while Churchill was a big, outgoing man with a larger-than-life personality.

Churchill famously quipped that, “an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and when the door was opened Attlee got out.” The juxtaposition of ideas is startling because on the face of it a person and an empty taxi don’t appear to have much in common. But Churchill’s metaphor perfectly expresses the idea of insignificance.

A criticism packaged into a witty image is great way of making sure people remember what you say because images are very effective mnemonic devices. And when a witty image captures an essential truth about a person or real situation, its impact can be incisive – as well as long-lasting.

A recent example, from November 2007, is Vince Cable’s witty criticism of Gordon Brown in which he reflected on Brown’s, “remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean.” Brown had only recently taken over as Prime Minister after Tony Blair’s resignation, having previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer.

During his ten years as Chancellor, Brown had established a reputation for being decisive and authoritarian (Stalinesque). When he took over as Prime Minister it wasn’t long before he faced a critical decision about whether or not to hold a snap general election. He prevaricated (Mr Bean) and almost overnight he undermined his image as an iron Chancellor.

Vince Cable’s remark summed up Brown’s fall from grace in a witty juxtaposition of two very different images. The consequences for Brown were dire – the remarks were to haunt him to the end of his premiership, and hasten it.

The following day, writing in the Guardian newspaper, Simon Hoggart described Cable’s attack on Brown:

A great howl of laughter seemed to fall from the very ceiling. Even Labour members desperately tried to hide their amusement from the whips. Apparently many stab victims feel no pain at first, but know how much it will hurt later. This one is going to hurt.”

And it did hurt! Cable’s witty hatchet job did produce plenty of laughter, even from Brown’s embarrassed supporters – but it was certainly no joke!

Why Political Debate is so Dull

It’s election time, and once again we find ourselves feeling like exhausted Artic explorers on the edge of calamity as we plough through a blizzard of political arguments. Economic arguments, strategic arguments, arguments of every conceivable kind are fired at us relentlessly from the TV, the radio, the newspapers, the internet and the people around us.

Given the argumentative fervour that engulfs us in a run-up to a general election, it seems odd that our experience of political argument should be so predictable, dull and frustrating. And perhaps it’s no surprise that many of us lose interest and switch off.

Take, for instance, the viewing figures for the historic leadership debates. The first one attracted over nine million viewers, while the second debate, a week later, saw viewing figures plummet to four million.

Even the astounding surge in Nick Clegg’s popularity following the first debate couldn’t be traced to a set of enlightening and cogent arguments. Clegg’s success wasn’t based on arguments at all, it was created instead by the unpopularity of his two opponents – and the incontestable fact that he isn’t either of them.

Mind your lip

I know, of course, that it is the vagaries of the floating voter that make our democratic system work. Some people will refuse to vote for Cameron, whatever he says, because they’re disturbed by the thinness of his upper lip. Another group find Brown’s facial tics a bit of a turnoff. While others can’t wait to stick a cross next to Clegg’s name because they think he’s got an honest face… and so it goes.

But what about those of us who take the time and trouble to examine the various arguments in detail, and think of ourselves as considerably more sophisticated than your average floating voter? Surely our political arguments have solid foundations which help us make more informed and open-minded choices – don’t they?

Ironically, I think political debate is at its most tedious when it’s conducted by well-informed partisans – and this is because the better informed and more politically committed a person is, the less likely they are to be persuaded by counter arguments.

Beyond belief

How believable, for example, is the following about-face? Picture two well-lubricated dinner party guests launching into a heated political debate – one a lifelong Conservative, the other a traditional Labour supporter. As their discussion gathers momentum, it becomes increasingly apparent to the other guests that the Labourite’s superior grasp of logic, coupled with her ability to marshal facts, is helping her clinically dismantle her opponent’s position – and credibility.

As the Labourite’s unremitting assault continues, her opponent’s resistance begins to crumble. Suddenly, in the face of his adversary’s superior fire-power, he waves the white flag. After a brief pause for thought, he plucks his Conservative Party membership card from his pocket and rips it into tiny pieces. Taking a deep breath, he announces solemnly to the gathering that from that day forth he will commit himself to the Labour cause with every fibre of his being.

Hang on a minute – in real life this kind of thing just doesn’t happen, does it? Political beliefs run deep and no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to shake them. We feel their rightness in the core of our being and even when they’ve been given a bit of a mauling, like those of the hapless Conservative diner, our usual response is to go off and hunt for more evidence to back them up – alternatively, we might put some of the arguments that have been used against us under the microscope so that we can discover their cracks and expose their weaknesses.

But just as Alice couldn’t see the point of a book without pictures, I struggle to see the point of two people having an argument if there’s little – or no – chance of either of them being persuaded to change their mind. Surely, the goal of debate is persuasion, isn’t it?

You can’t have everything

We know you can’t have everything in life, and this was never more true than in the realm of political debate. Floating voters are persuadable but eccentric – well-made arguments are of less interest to them than the shape of candidate’s nose, or the cut of their suit.

The well-informed, conviction voter will happily argue the night away with you as long as you’re willing to accept that they are unlikely to shift their position one iota. Their knowledge surrounds them like an impregnable castle wall – they know what they think, and they’re prepared for battle!

So if we choose persuasion, we have to abandon argument; and if we choose argument, we have to wave goodbye to the thought of persuasion. And this is frustrating – because an argument without the possibility of persuasion is just plain dull!

Obama’s Rhetoric – The Art That Conceals Art

Something shocking happened to Barack Obama on Thursday the 5th of June, 2008. He was addressing a meeting of the local community in Bristol, Virginia, when in the midst of his usual rhetorical flow, the wheels of his speech suddenly flew off and he ground to an inarticulate halt.

Here’s a transcript of Obama’s slip up: “Everybody knows that it makes no sense… that you send a kid to the emergency room for a treatable illness like asthma, they end up taking up a hospital bed, it costs… when… if you… they just gave… you gave up a hospital bed, it costs… when… if you… they just gave… you gave ‘em treatment early and they got… some treatment… and… er… a breathalyzer… or an inhalator… not a breathalyzer… (audience laughter)… I haven’t had much sleep in the last forty-eight hours or so…”

What had gone wrong? Had lack of sleep really caused Obama’s muse to nod off momentarily? Apparently not, what had happened was that his autocue had broken down for a couple of minutes.

Not surprisingly, the incident was enthusiastically seized upon by right wing critics as a stick to beat Obama’s presidential credentials to a pulp. The doyen of American right wing commentators, Rush Limbaugh, was unmoved by Obama’s lack of sleep excuse. As far as he was concerned, the fiasco proved beyond doubt that, shorn of his autocue and speech writers, Obama just didn’t have what it took to be president.

But Limbaugh was mistaken to accuse Obama of being nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy for his speech writers. Obama is a fine writer who takes a very active role in producing his own speeches in collaboration with a small team of speechwriters; and he is arguably the most accomplished wordsmith to have entered the White House since John F. Kennedy.

The illusion of spontaneity

I first became aware of Obama’s autocue (or teleprompter, as the Americans call it) habit while watching television coverage of his rousing victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago. There was a sudden cut from a head-on shot to a long shot of him behind the lectern; and in that instant the spell was broken for me.

The abrupt change of perspective revealed the narrow edge of an autocue glinting in the glare of the floodlights. A little rooting around on the Internet confirmed the shocking truth: it appeared that whenever Obama and his team hit the campaign trail, his trusty autocue was always top of his packing list.

I felt like a child who’d just found out there’s no Santa. Despite being a professional speech coach, it looked as though I had allowed my enthusiasm for Obama’s eloquence to blind me to the simple fact that his greatest oratorical gift amounted to little more than being a brilliant reader of autocues.

But my disappointment was, of course, unreasonable. After all, Obama’s Republican opponent John McCain was a slave to his autocue too; and his running mate Sarah Palin would have been lost without hers. Last year, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg seemed to have bucked the trend when he gave a conference speech without notes while walking up and down the stage. The excitement was short-lived though when it was later revealed that the illusion of spontaneity had been sustained by the use of a radically new kind of autocue.

So it would be unfair to criticize Obama’s dependence on the autocue given that nowadays autocues are part and parcel of almost every important political speech – when you’re talking on the record, the detailed arrangement and choice of words matters. But we’ve all been to conferences and seen speakers amuse and charm an audience for an hour or so without any technical assistance whatsoever – not even a set of cue cards.

A few months ago I watched in admiration as a high-profile chief executive gave a Nick Clegg-style sixty-minute conference address. Unlike Mr Clegg, though, this speaker pulled it off without resorting to a single artificial aid. He appeared to be speaking ‘off the cuff’, yet managed to give a well-structured, entertaining and inspiring speech. As the performance drew to a close and the applause started up, one of the delegates turned to me and whispered, “yes, he is a very good speaker but I wish he’d vary it a bit – I heard him give exactly the same speech a month ago.”

Practice makes perfect

Even the very best public speakers are only flesh and blood. Like the rest of us, they have to rely on either a good back-up system (such as an autocue, a set of notes, even a script) or, if they have enough time, a great deal of practice to prime their memory and polish their act. Of course, part of the art of public speaking is to cover this up – to create the illusion that it all comes naturally. But, rest assured, the world-renowned keynote speaker who effortlessly seduces her audience has perfected the telling of her tales over many years. And the comedian who has them weeping in the aisles with laughter has honed his word-perfect routine in front of many tough audiences.

Our keynote speaker and comedian were fortunate in having had enough time to try out their performances on a variety of audiences and practise them until they became second nature. Obama didn’t have this luxury; his victory speech in Grant Park was a one-off watched by an audience of millions, just like his other great campaign speeches. In truth, without the help of an autocue, his punishing schedule of campaign speech-making would have been an impossibility.

If we want to learn from Obama and other great speakers, we must take care not to be blinded and overawed by their brilliance – which can have the effect of intimidating the rest of us, and feeding our anxieties about our own performance. Instead we should look beneath the surface of what they do to the technique that underpins it. Great oratory is always founded on sound technique and plenty of practice. Understanding this helps us to overcome our fear of public speaking because, when it comes to being an outstanding orator, knowledge really is power.

The Secret of a Steve Jobs Sales Pitch

This article is my contribution to the latest Angela DeFinis Blog Carnival which is on the topic of “The Impact of Public Speaking on Top Sales Performance.”

Steve Jobs is a laid-back, softly spoken, jeans-wearing, middle-aged geek. So what makes him one of the best salesmen in the world? You could argue that he doesn’t have to try too hard because his company, Apple, designs such fantastic products. But great products don’t sell themselves. No, the key to Steve Jobs’ success is his way with words, and his consummate skill in using them to work a crowd.

Over the years, his Macworld keynote presentations – in which he announces his company’s latest products – have become legendary. He makes it look easy, but there’s a great deal of careful thought and artifice behind his masterful performances.

Take, for example, his historic 2007 Macworld keynote presentation, which launched the iPhone. Despite his understated delivery style, Jobs succeeds in drawing us in from the outset by quietly telling us that he’s been looking forward to this day for two and a half years.

In just three minutes he takes his audience from a state of hushed expectation to a crescendo of delight. He accomplishes this by repeating three key words: change, introduce, and revolutionary. These words leave us in no doubt that something amazing is about to happen.

Jobs is using the rhetorical technique of climax, and it’s interesting to note that the English word climax comes from the Greek word klimax, meaning ladder. It’s as if he’s leading his audience up the ladder of anticipation, one rung at a time.

Great political orators like Barack Obama appreciate what a powerful effect a word like change can have on an audience – and so does Jobs. And the juxtaposition of the word introduce – with its promise of delivering change – eventually whips his audience into a frenzy of applause; one that is sparked by the final curtain-raising phrase, “today we’re introducing…”

“…every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything…Apple’s been very fortunate; it’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world. In 1984 we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry. In 2001 we introduced the first iPod. And it didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry. Well, today we’re introducing three revolutionary products…”

Apple is of course one of the most powerful – and instantly recognised and understood – global brands in the world; and the three words encapsulate its essence: “introducing revolutionary change”.

Having taken his audience almost to the top of the mountain, Jobs then pulls off a masterstroke. He uses the classical rhetorical device of the three-part message to trick his audience. Having already told them that one would be very fortunate to get the chance to work on even one revolutionary product in the course of a single career, Jobs starts the drum-roll by announcing not one, but three such revolutionary products: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device.

Next, in another carefully choreographed climax, he repeats the list four times; and then in final sleight of hand he uses a puzzle – or enigma, as the ancient rhetoricians would call it – to focus his audience’s attention before they finally set foot on the summit.

“An iPod (applause), a phone (applause) and an internet communicator… Are you getting it? (puzzle)” And in a final coup de foudre he removes the veil with a flourish. “These are not three separate devices. This is one device. (cheers!) And we are calling it: iPhone. (more cheers). Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone!”

It’s no accident that Jobs uses the present tense here, because it adds to the thrill of the occasion by fostering the illusion that the revolutionary new phone is literally being invented before his audience’s eyes. Now there’s showmanship that even the great P.T. Barnum would happily have doffed his hat to.

Drowning your story in a sea of detail

Talking is a very ineffectual way of communicating detailed information – it’s like trying to collect water from a well with a colander. When you give a speech or presentation always imagine yourself writing with a thick waxy crayon, not a slender mapping pen.

If you choose to make a point with a story, make sure you’re clear in your own mind what the point you’re making is. Ideally you should be able to express it in a single word or short phrase.

Our clients often find that their expertise can be a handicap when it comes to sharing knowledge. The client knows too much and is reluctant to simplify because they’re afraid of being inaccurate and misleading.

Such punctiliousness is admirable in the drafting of an official – or technical – document, but totally inappropriate when speaking to an audience. However fascinating your audience find what you’re saying, there’s only so much they can take in – the rest is white noise.

Take the following example:

“I was instrumental in highlighting the exploitation of internationally recruited overseas domestic workers and worked closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to develop a Code of Practice to close off the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers being brought into this country by disreputable agencies and employers.”

If you’re in the audience when a speaker hurls a pile of official-sounding abstract words like these at you, you’re likely zone out immediately. Truth is, they’re difficult enough to make sense of on the page.

“Instrumental in highlighting” draws us into a labyrinth of beffudlement – it leaves us yearning for a simple verb to guide us towards enlightenment. Everywhere we turn we’re besieged by trees – but there’s absolutely no sign of the wood!

It’s especially ironic that these words should leave us feeling as empty and confused as they do because they were written with the sole intention of establishing the ethos of the speaker. Their purpose was to establish the speaker’s credibility, achievement and trustworthiness.

Instead they have the opposite effect – leaving us feeling confused, unmoved and increasingly irritated by their opacity. This is a real pity because buried just beneath the verbiage is something really positive and impressive.

The first thing we need to do is to connect the “I” with the simple verb we’ve been craving for – in this instance the verb “develop”. Next we look for some kind of object for develop to get its teeth into. This gives us a promising start:

“I developed a Code of Practice…”; but this begs the question, what Code of Practice? In the original it’s a Code of Practice to close off the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers being brought into this country by disreputable agencies and employers.”

The problem here is the euphemistic phrase “to close off”. If we substitute something more direct like “stop” or “put an end to”, the cloud cover of bewilderment falls away dramatically. “Put an end to the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers recruited from overseas by disreputable agencies and employers.”


Our final version reads like this:

“Working with the Department for Work and Pensions, I developed a code of Practice that put an end to the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers recruited from overseas by disreputable agencies and employers.”


We’ve reduced the number of words by over 25% from 47 to 32. We’ve cut out the deadwood – e.g “instrumental in highlighting”. And we’re left with a clear statement that has impact, and increases our respect for the speaker. It may not reach the acme of oratorical art, but it does the trick!

How to be an ‘interesting’ speaker

Most speeches and presentations are dull affairs. Soporific experiences to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Part of the fabric of everyday life; like a visit to the dentist – but more frequent.

But why should this be? After all, there are plenty of interesting, articulate people around. So how is it that so many of them are rendered boring when called upon to stand before an audience and speak?

Ask a colleague what they think of PowerPoint and you’ll find a clue. Chances are they’ll tell you that in their experience most PowerPoint presentations are about as stimulating as a general anaesthetic. However, if you ask them about the presentation they’re currently working on, don’t faint from shock when they tell you it’s going be a PowerPoint one.

Could this apparent contradiction be explained away by the fact that they are brilliant at using PowerPoint? Surely if that were true, we’d already be living in PowerPoint heaven. No, the usual response is that they use PowerPoint because everyone else does. It’s just the way things are – like taxes and computer crashes.

We humans are inherently paradoxical creatures. Within our hearts we dance to two very alluring but contradictory tunes. One expresses our overwhelming need to be part of the herd, while the other gives voice to our acute desire to discover and assert our individuality. The success of each depends on the failure of the other.

Take, for example, the history of stock market bubbles and crashes. From time to time the herd becomes caught up in the frenzied buying, or selling, of shares, irrespective of whether or not it’s a good time to do it. This is a powerful demonstration of just how much the herd’s behaviour is driven by the heart, not the head. The greed of the herd inflates the bubbles, while its fear pops them, and creates the crashes. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of this mayhem, it’s the handful of individuals moving in the opposite direction who amass the profits.

It may seem like a giant leap from the stock market to the writing of a speech, or presentation – but it isn’t. Interesting speeches and presentations are written by individuals, not herds. So always ask yourself: “what kind of speech, or presentation, would the herd produce in this situation?” And then do it a bit differently.

The key word here is ‘bit’, because you’ll find that even the slightest deviation from the predictability of the herd will result in a disproportionately substantial benefit. There’s no need to go mad and turn everything on its head. Think instead of chaos theory and the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil setting off a tornado in Texas.

In your next presentation you could decide to surprise, and delight, everyone – including yourself – by not using PowerPoint at all. Or, you could try using it sparingly: a small number of slides as an accompaniment to your script, rather than as the main course.

The problem with herd slides is that they usually have far too many words and bullet points in them. You could experiment with slides that contain no words at all, just an image. And the image you choose could be one that acts as a visual mnemonic for one of the small number – ideally not more than three – main points you want your audience to take away with them.

When you’re writing your script make an effort to avoid over-used words and phrases, because the herd is addicted to them. So try not to be ‘passionate’ about things. ‘Passionate’ is a perfectly respectable word that’s had the stuffing knocked out of it by years of over-use and abuse.

Genuine passion is associated with intense emotion. Nowadays the herd is passionate about everything from ice-cream to plumbing. But if you’re passionate about everything, you end up being passionate about nothing.

So give praise to the herd, because thanks to its existence, being interesting isn’t half as difficult as you might think. It’s simply a matter of learning to trust your individual impulse, and allowing it free rein. And, finally, remember to pay attention next time your individual impulse asks the question, ‘why?’

How Martin Luther King’s words inspire us

The words of a skilled speaker or writer create light in the minds of others. We instantly ‘see’ what they mean, we are enlightened. Their words grab our attention by stimulating our imaginations and touching our hearts. How is it that some people can do this while others leave us stumbling about in the dark wondering what they’re talking about?

The other day I listened to Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and immediately fell under its spell. His language is full of imagery. His words spring into life as a series of tableaux that tell a compelling story about the African-Americans’ struggle for social equality. It’s clear that King recognises the persuasive power of imagery.

He magically transforms an abstract phrase like, ‘racial injustice’ into something palpable when he says, ‘now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.’ Instead of confining his appeal to our intellect, King broadens the persuasive power of his argument by hitting us in the solar plexus. He succeeds in making us feel the rightness of what he’s saying because standing on solid rock is always going to feel safer than sinking into quicksand.

The speech remains positive to the end, despite the catalogue of suffering it describes. King shares his dream with us, not his nightmare. The high point of the speech is an image of prodigious positive power – one that seems capable of single-handedly healing the wounds of history. ‘I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’

Again, abstract words like ‘slaves’ and ‘slave owners’ are humanised by making them characters that play out a dramatic episode. A simple dash of colour – ‘red’ – brings the ‘hills of Georgia’ to life; you can almost feel the roughness of the sandstone between your fingers. A vague aspiration like ‘brotherhood’, is miraculously transformed (echoes of the Eucharist) into a solid and achievable thing – a table – something we can see and touch, something comfortable and familiar. A solid reality where enemies can meet, break bread together and make peace.

In a study of historic presidential speeches, titled ‘Images in Words’, Professor Cynthia Emrich and colleagues discovered that U.S. presidents now thought of as charismatic by historians used lots of image-based words in their language – and were also considered more effective leaders. These findings are in line with other research that suggests that effective leaders and communicators use more picture words and imagery in their language than other people.

Martin Luther King’s speech shows us that even abstract words and concepts can be made more pictorial and memorable by presenting them as part of an image or metaphor. We are rarely persuaded by reason alone. When advertisers want to make us buy, or politicians want to attract our vote, they tap into the vast power of our visual brain by using images to make their pitch. Part of the power of images is that they can make us feel and think in the same instant; they cast their net wide by appealing to the head and the heart.

George Orwell, an acknowledged master of clear thinking and communication, believed that it was probably ‘better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.’

So how about trying this when you’re about to write or explain something. Instead of starting with words, begin with images. Explore what you’re trying to say by picturing it in your mind’s eye. Try drawing it, and let your doodles lead the way. Relax, take your time and eventually – sooner than you think – you’ll happen upon an image that just feels right. As you begin to explore and unpack it, you’ll discover that it works precisely because it’s also a rich metaphor for what you want to express. Once the right image is in place, the hard work is done. Words will come to it like moths to a light.

Mehrabian Nights – an informative tale about (mis)communication

A happy, healthy and prosperous New Year to all our readers, Twitter followers and clients. We’re ending 2009 with some good news: we’ve just found out that the TrainingZone community have voted my Mehrabian article the best feature of 2009 – and it has been read 20,564 times, so far. This is the article that inspired our Mehrabian animation, which is also about to reach 20,000 hits. In case you missed them, here they are again…

Here’s an urban myth about communication that’s harder to swallow than a whale. It’s one of the most influential and widely quoted statistical stories around, and it goes like this:

When someone speaks to us, only 7% of what they mean communicates itself through the words they use.

You have probably come across this figure before. It’s based on research which apparently demonstrates that most (55%) of what a speaker means is conveyed through their facial expressions and the rest (38%) is communicated through tone of voice. In one fell swoop, words are relegated to the role of bit-part players on the stage of communication. They hardly seem to matter at all.

But as with most urban myths, when you chew the story over, the alarm bells of common sense start ringing. Is it really possible that if I get lost and ask a passerby for directions, I’ll have to work out the correct route mostly from their facial expressions and tone of voice, and not from the words they use? As Mr Spock might say, “it’s communication, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Google the name ‘Mehrabian’ and you’ll discover any number of websites eager to inform you that these statistics are based on research done by Professor Albert Mehrabian. But – surprise, surprise – his research proves nothing of the kind, as he’d be the first to tell you.

The devil’s in the detail

On his own website, Mehrabian expresses the results of his research in the form of an equation:

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

He goes on to explain that “this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

What the pedlars of the urban myth version of Mehrabian’s statistical story don’t make clear – or perhaps don’t know themselves – is that Mehrabian’s research was concerned with a very specific, and limited, aspect of nonverbal communication – it’s not about communication in general. His work relates only to inconsistent messages about feelings and attitudes, that is, face-to-face exchanges in which the meaning of what we say is contradicted by our body language and tone of voice.

Mixed messages

Imagine a situation in which you’ve had a disagreement with a colleague but they insist they’re not annoyed with you despite the fact that they’ve got their arms tightly crossed, their head is turned away from you, they avoid eye contact and they deliver their words through clenched teeth.

Or you tell a friend a joke and they respond with a stony face but tell you they think your joke is really funny. Chances are you’ll be more influenced by their impassive look than their encouraging words – and you won’t be telling that joke again in a hurry!

As a result of his experiments, Mehrabian concluded that when we’re faced with a mixed message like the ones above, we’re much more likely to believe that the real meaning is contained in the nonverbal signals the person is giving off, rather than in the words they’re saying. His famous statistic is his attempt to express this kind of experience in the form of an equation.

But – and this is the crucial point – we must not lose sight of the fact that Mehrabian’s statistic only makes sense when applied to the very narrow range of communicative experience that he was investigating, ie the ambiguous expression of feelings and attitudes. The attempt to apply it to all face-to-face communications is both wrong and ridiculous.

The appeal of the urban myth

So why has the distorted version of Mehrabian’s statistical story been so eagerly embraced? Well a large part of its appeal – as with other urban myths – is that its message is simple, credible and, above all, surprising. It belittles the power of words and, in an instant, it turns everything we think we know about communication on its head. Could this be why so much current thinking about presentation skills exaggerates the significance of the finer points of delivery while underplaying the fundamental importance of getting the words right?

We should always bear in mind that words are the main ingredient of presentations, talks and speeches. But they have to be the right words, used in the right way, by the right person, at the right time. So maybe it’s no wonder that many of us would rather embrace the false comfort of a spurious statistic than face up to the creative challenge of trying to discover those right words.

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