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.

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?’

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.

The Dangers of Co-opting Scientific Explanation

As non-scientists plying our trade, I believe we should be wary of justifying our practice on the basis of scientific research.

Don’t get me wrong, science intrigues me as much as it does the next layperson. But the problem for laypeople like us is that all our scientific knowledge necessarily comes predigested – usually second, third or even fourthhand. Not surprising really given that primary sources in the field of science are a closed book to us.

Many of the people who write most clearly and entertainingly about science aren’t scientists either. I’m a big fan of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink and Rita Carter, but as far as I’m aware, they don’t hold a single science degree between them.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when the knowledge itself is decidedly dubious. Pop scientific explanations in the field of public speaking have a tendency to go awry. A little reading turns us into experts, and soon we find ourselves making bold claims about the connection between certain behaviours and specific brain regions – claims which would make a genuine expert cringe.

What’s the problem with having a bit of harmless speculative fun, you might ask? Well, my first response is that it’s far from harmless: it begets an endless supply of half-baked pseudo scientific monstrosities that damage our professional standing and brand.

We find our professional practice polluted with “scientifically proven” ideas like 93% of communication is nonverbal; or the notion that each of us learns best according to their preferred learning style; or the contention that educational kinesiology (brain gym) is considerably more than a ragbag of pseudo scientific tosh.

The first thing that using the phrase “scientifically proven” reveals about you is that you’re not a scientist – which means that what you’re telling me should probably be taken with a giant pinch of salt.

Science doesn’t prove things. Research can strongly support a hypothesis, it can suggest relationships or causality, it can even be convincing – but it can’t prove things. It can however disprove things.

Scientists validate their research through the process of “peer review”. They submit their research papers to other experts in the field who assess their validity, their significance, their originality, and their clarity.

Experiments in various fields are being carried out all the time. But most of them aren’t peer reviewed, so we should be extremely wary of using their findings to justify what we do.

I would also argue that though science can throw light on some aspects of our professional practice, we’re not dependent on it to explain and justify what we do. Let me give you a recent example in the field of language.

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a fascinating programme called ‘Why Reading Matters‘. In it, science writer Rita Carter told the story of how the use of brain imaging in modern neuroscience is beginning to reveal the effects of the act of reading on the brain.

In one part of the programme Shakespeare scholar, professor Philip Davis, tells the story of how he’d sought the help of neuroscientist, professor Guillaume Thierry, to explain what was happening in his brain when he responded to Shakespeare’s rhetorical inventiveness.

The rhetorical device that interested Davis was the way that Shakespeare occasionally surprises his audience by turning an adjective, or noun, into a verb. In the film he gives an example from King Lear in which the adjective ‘mad’ is transformed into the verb ‘madded’ – “A father, and a gracious aged man… have you madded.”

Davis describes the effect of this device on him as “primal”, “exciting”, “electric”, and “visceral”. And he asks the neuroscientist to use brain imaging techniques on him to see if the shapes in front of his eyes have an effect on the shapes behind his eyes – i.e. his brain.

This visceral view of language is central to our ‘Words that Move Mountains” approach to communication, but my point is that though I find the brain science intriguing, our practice does not depend on it anymore than an audience’s delight in the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language would.

UK Speechwriters’ Guild inaugural conference video

Here’s a video of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild inaugural conference. It was filmed last month in Bournemouth by talented film maker and producer Tim Clague – who’s done a superb job in capturing the flavour, and excitement, of the event.

Martha and I were invited to show our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ video and give a presentation about it. It was exciting for us to share the platform with such luminaries of the speechwriting world as Philip Collins (Tony Blair’s Chief Speechwriter), Max Atkinson (Paddy Ashdown’s former speechwriter), and Susan Jones (former UK Cabinet Speechwriter), to name but three.

Here are some quotes from conference participants that give a clear idea of what those who took part in the conference stand for:

“I felt this was needed because I have worked as a speechwriter for about ten years in a very isolated way… that in America they analyse the way people write and the way you can be creative… and they take it extremely seriously. Whereas England is quite old-fashioned in that people are expected to acquire these skills effortlessly along the way… Speakers today have explained that speaking is different from writing – people confuse writing with speaking – and if you know these basic techniques, you’ll transform the way you communicate… I just want to sort of draw attention to the fact that was mentioned earlier today that words – the way words are used – is extremely important” Brian Jenner – founder of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild

“So the question is: why are there so few professional speechwriters?” Martin Shovel – CreativityWorks

“I agree with the premise given in the previous presentation that actually a lot of the focus is on presentational skills – body language, tone – you know you feel very self-conscious and all that sort of thing. Whereas what the focus today has been about is the power of words, and that I think is a bit of a forgotten art…” Paul Harrod – Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol North West

“All the emphasis in recent years has been all about presentation… actually, you know, the words are valuable, and that’s a good lesson to get out of today.” Roger Lakin – Speechwriter, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

“So there’s a demand for speechwriters. In industry I have estimated that the cost to British industry of people attending boring presentations is in excess of eight billion pounds a year… There is a demand for decent speeches – and that means there is a demand for speechwriters.” Max Atkinson – Communications consultant and Speech Coach

“In other countries I think speechwriting is a fairly well-establised profession, so there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case in Britain… Trust in politicians is very low. People want to hear what politicians have got to say. And they want to hear them say it in a credible way… There is a new need and a demand for a more elaborate art of speaking – for people to be actually trained in what to say and how to say it.” Dr Johan Siebers – Leader of a new one-year MA in Rhetoric at the University of Central Lancaster

“Well it’s the first of its kind – and I think it’s long overdue…There is a lot more to speechwriting and speech production than even I thought.” Phillip Khan-PanniPKP Communications

It can all be summed up by the final words of our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ video: “Words really matter – let’s give them the respect they deserve!”

How not using PowerPoint can make you a better presenter

This morning I began writing a response to a comment posted on yesterday’s blog by Olivia Mitchell but as I did it slowly evolved into a post – so here it is. Olivia’s comment can be seen on yesterday’s post – Warning: PowerPoint may cause template thinking syndrome.

Olivia – thanks for some really good questions that have given me the opportunity to clarify CreativityWorks’ stance on some important issues.

Do I think that it’s better not to use PowerPoint at all? Yes, I do – and I’ll tell you why. In my experience, when clients are encouraged to cure themselves of PowerPoint template thinking more often than not they are amazed to discover that it’s not as essential to the success of their presentations as they thought – a bit like the reformed alcoholic who discovers that enjoying a party doesn’t always depend on having a drink.

Thinking of PowerPoint as your slave rather than your master fundamentally changes your relationship with it. It allows you to spend more time on the important parts of your presentation – the core message (proposition) and words. As a result PowerPower if used at all becomes an occasional accompaniment, not a guiding light. Many presentations, and presenters, find they improve dramatically when they abandon their knee-jerk reaction to the use of PowerPoint.

Martha and I had proof of this recently when we got feedback from a client who had worked with us on the closing keynote for a major conference. He’s a senior government adviser and he excitedly told us that he was the only one of ten speakers who didn’t use PowerPoint. He was delighted by the positive response of his audience – indeed, many of those who came up to talk with him afterwards could remember many of his points word-for-word.

This brings us to your question about exploiting the visual part of your audience’s brain so that they learn more. Visual thinking is at the heart of CreativityWorks’ approach. The best communicators use visual language – people can see what they mean. Just as it’s often said that “the pictures are better on radio”, we believe that the best way to engage the visual brain of an audience is to express your message in visual language.

In November 2007, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable stood up in the House of Commons and criticised new Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s vacillation over whether or not to hold a general election. He said: “the House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks – from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

The juxtaposition of two such incongruous images – Stalin and Mr Bean – brilliantly encapsulated Gordon Brown’s fall from grace. No one listening had to make an effort to remember Cable’s imagery – and the power of Cable’s metaphor was so great that Brown’s brand has never recovered from it. I’m not sure that anyone would argue that Cables lampoon would have been even more effective if he’d been given special dispensation by the House of Commons to use PowerPoint!

Warning: PowerPoint may cause template thinking syndrome

PowerPoint users – and I know there are many of you – don’t be alarmed, but there is a growing body of evidence that many of you run the risk of developing a condition known as template thinking syndrome.

The main symptom of template thinking syndrome is an overwhelming tendency to begin the preparation for any kind of presentation by first transferring all your content onto a series of PowerPoint slides. This invariably leads to the next stage of the syndrome in which the presenter spends some time aimlessly shuffling their slides around until they feel they are beginning to make sense.

At this point, syndrome sufferers delude themselves into believing that their presentation is just about ready to go. They convince themselves that the combination of their carefully prepared slide show and some accompanying explanatory remarks on the day will keep their audience on the edge of their seats.

There is, however, a growing body of evidence that this approach results in audiences that are confused, and ultimately bored. Audiences, in fact, that live in fear of attending their next PowerPoint presentation.

Another fascinating symptom of this syndrome is that close observation of its sufferers reveals the fact that the majority of them have split – or dissociated – personalities. A series of research experiments discovered that if sufferers are instructed to attend a PowerPoint presentation by another presenter, a large number of them attempt to escape by running in the opposite direction, beating their chests and wailing loudly.

But can anything be done to treat or ameliorate the syndrome? In principle yes, but in practice it’s very hard because it demands that sufferers think carefully about each presentation they do, rather than revert to the mindless default of the PowerPoint template, just because it’s easier and takes less time.

Throwing content at an audience in the form of PowerPoint slides and hoping that they’ll make sense of it is a recipe for disaster. Instead, presenters should begin their preparation by working out what it is they want to say and expressing in it in the form of a proposition: a statement that their audience will either agree or disagree with.

A non-propositional statement would be something boring like ‘my day at the zoo’. Whereas, a propositional statement on the same theme would be something like: ‘all zoos should be closed down’, or ‘animals are much happier in zoos than in the wild’.

So next time you are working on a presentation, if you find yourself drifting towards template thinking syndrome, take a break, make yourself a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and dare to think the unthinkable: maybe this presentation doesn’t require PowerPoint at all!

Busting the Mehrabian Myth!

The story behind the video…

One Friday afternoon back in March we had an enquiry from a global company who wanted to get an important message about compliance out to their staff. They were thinking about using a short video animation for this, and they wondered if this was something we could do for them…

Maybe it was the spring air that did it, but we found ourselves agreeing to a further discussion, despite confessing to the client that we’d never made an animation before. Somehow the idea had taken root, so we spent the weekend researching how to go about it.

In the end, that project didn’t come off, but we had the bit between our teeth, and we wanted to try making an animation for ourselves. So we went ahead and put together a studio – camera, lights, tripods, sound-recording equipment, top quality whiteboard and pens. We installed Final Cut Express on our iMac, and we were ready to go.

Then, as is so often the way, we got sidetracked by other work, so we put the video project on ice. Strangely, though, it kept popping into conversations, and people kept asking us if we could make them a video. We told them we hadn’t made one yet, but it didn’t seem to put them off… so we set ourselves a deadline and a challenge: to see if we could communicate a fairly complex and abstract idea in a 3-minute animated cartoon.

We chose Martin’s article from 2007, ‘Mehrabian Nights: a tall tale about communication’ as a starting point. It’s been a hot topic in the presentation skills blogosphere in recent weeks, and we wanted to see if we could make a different kind of contribution to the debate.

We’d love to know what you think of it – and if you can see ways in which videos like this could help you, or any of your contacts, get messages across.

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