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Myths about Presentation

Both my wife Lindsay and I were on Tomorrow’s World 20 years ago, and I remained technically in Science Department for my whole career. So when we started working on presentation skills we started trying to find out what the science of human communication was all about.

Almost immediately we came across this startling fact.


I studied Biochemistry at college and my wife did Physiology. One of the sensible strategies most people adopt in science is to “guestimate” and answer before doing the actual calculation, so that when you calculate the distance to the sun to be 80,000 miles you immediately realise that something is wrong.

‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ set our alarm bells ringing.  That would make telephone conversations difficult, and that would mean you could turn the sound off on your TV and get 93% of it?

It didn’t take long to find out more.

The 93% fact is derived from some work that Albert Mehrabian did in the 60’s. The titles of his two papers, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications”  and “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels” reveal that what he was interested in was how different ‘channels’, words, expression, tone of voice interacted.  The work was done on single words “terrible” “dear” and only on women.

Mehrabian has spent the last 40 years pointing out to people that he did not conclude that 93% of communication is non verbal.  The idea that this decodes the value of Verbal vs Vocal vs Visual communication is like suggesting a toast-falling-butter-side-up experiment explains quantum physics.

Yet today I read on About.com,

One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.

If you Google ‘93% communication’ today you will find in equal measure debunking references, and sites happily trotting out the same old nonsense.  Most of that is through laziness.  If something is reported clearly and unambiguously we tend to assume it’s true.  Trouble is, for those of us who have worked in the media, journalists often work that way too, so one untruth (especially if it’s “sexy”) will be repeated as fact.

A great example is “Winterval”. A catch all term Birmingham council used to package and brand all the winter events many years ago.  It took one journalist to write the story as “Council rebrands Christmas as Winterval” and the WInterval myth was born.


Another nice story that we were very suspicious of,  “we fear public speaking more than death”

If you’re interested here :  LINK is a nice explanation.

And so, to some degree, it is true.  But put someone on a cliff and ask them if they’d rather jump or do a 5 minute talk on “What I did on my holidays” I think you might get a different result… Which demonstrates how hard it is to get copper-bottomed facts in the absurdly complex world of human interaction.


Partly because of the Mehrabian falsehood, we became slightly obsessed with body language.  If you believed the 93% fact you would plainly become obsessed with it.  So huge amounts of time has been spent getting people to worry about what they are doing with their hands, or if their shoulders are hunched rather than thinking about what they were saying.

We think body language is very important, but we can express it in two words: BE POLITE

It is polite to look at people you are talking to.  It is polite to face towards people you are talking to.  It is polite to smile and look interested in the people you are talking to.  It is polite to speak clearly.  It is polite to stand in an “open” way.  It is polite to nod when they speak to you.

That’s it. All you need to know about body language.


About gristpresent

Presentation, Q&A and Engagement Coach. We help you win more business. Also BAFTA-winning film maker. See our new site www.grist.co.uk


2 thoughts on “Myths about Presentation

  1. I’ve often been intrigued about this “statistic” as well. Thanks for the post. There is so much mythology piled-up around public speaking and it’s good to see this particular piece of it being exposed to the light.

    Posted by Peter | February 3, 2012, 12:17 pm

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