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How Important Are Your Nonverbal Signals?
by Ed Barks


It is a commonly cited statistic—55 percent of the communications signals we send result from how others see us, 38 percent flow from the way they hear us, and seven percent come from our words.

Yet these figures must be placed in context. Not for one moment do I suggest that CEOs speaking from a podium or engaged in a media interview will achieve success if they simply master their nonverbal tools. The most adroit hand gesture in the world will not save you if your message is weak or nonexistent.

Playing the Percentages

I use those numbers myself when I lead communications training workshops for clients. The learning moment arrives when they learn just how powerful a signal these “body language” cues send. Stressing that more than half of the average individual’s ability to communicate is delivered via the Video tools drives home the point.

At the same time, I am careful to point out that the 55-38-7 figures must be placed in context. Not for one moment do I suggest that a CEO will achieve success simply by mastering the use of Video tools.

The next time you hear someone cite these percentages, listen with a careful ear, for faulty analyses abound. Why? Most “experts” fail to dig into the original research to gain an understanding of the data (just for fun, when confronted with a consultant who cites these numbers, ask him or her for more details on the research. You will likely be met with a nebulous reference to studies at one university or another. Or you may encounter a blank stare. While this deer in the headlights reaction may add to your amusement, it should certainly call into question just how much value you stand to gain from studying with this individual).

Practical Applications

This is not intended to be a scholarly treatise, so I will say only that the wizard behind the 55-38-7 curtain is Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D., a faculty member of UCLA’s Psychology Department, who first advanced this arrangement. Mehrabian published his research in the 1970s and, while others have added to it around the edges, his work remains the guiding light even today.

Most CEOs don’t care about the research methods used to arrive at these findings, nor should they. Results are what counts—results in the form of more persuasive presentations and positive news clips. These outcomes lead to a healthier bottom line, a shinier brand, an increase in customers.

A communications trainer must be alert to the research, without getting so bogged down in the minutiae that he becomes a college lecturer instead of a hands-on provider of practical information. As a university professor of mine was fond of saying, “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Here is how today’s CEO needs to frame the picture: Your message is vital. After all, you decide to hit the speaking circuit or launch a media campaign because of the message you have to impart, not because you want to impress audiences and reporters with your ability to raise an eyebrow or modulate your voice.

Reasoned Communications Outreach

Public speaking involves much more than uttering some carefully crafted words. Yes, you are invited to speak because you can teach your audience a skill, inform them about your new offering, entertain them, or intrigue them by offering a controversial viewpoint.

Yet there is more than knowledge at play in the public speaking arena. Experts are a dime a dozen. Experts who know how to communicate clearly and powerfully carry the day.

In addition to being an expert who delivers prime content, you—as a CEO—must be a performer who engages your audiences with your nonverbal tools. You must appear both interesting and interested. Let us turn to a survey of the essentials that can help you buy the winning ticket.

Video and Audio

The first set of tools to consider are your Video Tools, or how you look to your audience. Use your movements to create a visually attractive presentation. Facial expressions, gestures, and your position—whether you decide to stand, sit, or use a lectern—all come into play. Be sure to maintain solid eye contact with your audience. Select wardrobe, accessories, and hairstyle that will not distract those in attendance.

When appropriate use props such as presentation software, handouts, charts, and other visual aids. Just be sure that they fit your topic and your preferred style. If, for instance, you tend to get flummoxed by trying to advance slides, avoid using that technology unless absolutely necessary (helpful hint to those who are irrevocably wedded to slide shows: Unless your presentation is ultra-high in visual content, slides are rarely needed. For too many presenters, they are no more than a crutch. For too many audiences, they are an open invitation to nap time).

The second set of tools in your arsenal consists of your Audio Tools, which relates to the way you sound. Use the inflection of your voice to avoid a monotone or singsong approach. Vary the volume with which you speak as well as your rate of speech to make for a more engaging personality. It is also crucial that you show some emotion; if you don’t display enthusiasm, why should your audience care? Finally, make it a point to enunciate clearly.

Message Matters

Finally comes the third portion of your communications toolkit, your message—the words you speak. No question, it takes time and energy, and lots of it, to craft a solid message. I urge you to dedicate the time necessary to fine tune your message. It forms the foundation for all your communications outreach efforts.

Once your message has gelled, you need to muster the discipline to stick to it whenever you communicate in a public forum. Consistency counts. Remember, it may be the hundredth time you’ve heard it, but it is all new to your audience.

I sometimes hear push back from technically-minded CEOs who ask, “If I have a strong message, why do I need to pay attention to my Video Tools and Audio Tools?” The answer is that effective use of those tools makes your audience more receptive to your message. Sure, they could run the Kentucky Derby minus the colorful silks and without the pomp provided by the bugler. But I would wager that a relatively small percentage of the crowd actually consists of diehard horse racing fans. People attend for the scene.

Similarly, your presentation should be viewed as an event—the place to be! When you commit to fusing your Video Tools, Audio Tools, and Message into a powerful combination, your listeners will place you in the winner’s circle.


The Author

Ed Barks

Ed Barks works with corporate and association executives who need a magnetic message and sharp communications skills, and with public affairs and public relations experts who counsel their bosses and clients. He is also the author of The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations and President of Barks Communications.

Learn more at . Contact Ed at (540) 955-0600 or .

Many more articles in Presentations & Public Speaking in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2009 by Ed Barks. All rights reserved.

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