It Takes More Than Words

A month ago I wrote a comprehensive article for my Yale Alumni class (of many years ago) on communications, and how education at the highest levels did not have it right. Thought you might be interested in what I think counts in personal impact – it’s a long piece but a compilation of over 25 years of experience in researching, writing, speaking, coaching and training in this field.

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It Takes More Than Words

When Yale Grad School student  Bill Clinton stands up to talk, people listen. When Yale Grad George Bush talks, different story. It’s more than politics. It’s how they speak — their behavior — not just what they say or their political views.

Clinton is an anomaly of our education system. He learned outside of it. Bush is more typical. We’re not taught to speak well, much less inspire. In the academic world we are taught to communicate to inform, not influence. Too bad.

What a service Yale could provide, and all of academia for that matter, if they made the distinction between the written and spoken word. We would have a lot more people speaking more effectively — with more vitality, more vibrancy and more vigorous dialogue.

I’ve been immersed in the communication field for 25 years. My company has trained over 200,000 leaders and managers — business and professional people. I have personally coached Charles Schwab, House Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Olympians like Bonnie Blair who has five gold medals on her mantel, and many other leaders and influencers. I’ve been privileged to have authored best selling books on communicating, been on NBC’s TODAY show many times, etc. This is for credentials by the way, not kudos. For I know that the effectiveness of our spoken communication determines the effectiveness of our lives, and yet they don’t teach that in our academic traditions. It’s as if the spoken medium is just an offshoot of the written word, and it is just not so.

Bruce Barton was founder of BBD&O, a great businessman, scholar and congressman. He said it best, “Talkers have always ruled; they will continue to rule. The smart thing is to join them.”

So why don’t they teach it well in secondary schools, colleges and universities. Even MBA programs don’t teach speaking as one of the major requirements for business success. And the seminaries that produce the leaders of our churches still teach their charges to write manuscripts and read sermons. Good for accuracy perhaps, but not only is it boring, it’s just not very effective.

The Solution

Bring technology into the academic world. I don’t mean computer advances, but the technology of the video and audio tools that are available today that can give people instant feedback. Video feedback is absolutely essential for someone who wants to make an impact speaking. Observed behavior changes. Each passing month gives us smaller, cheaper and more portable video cameras and audio recorders.

Here’s why video feedback is vital to success:

  • What we see and hear determines whether we trust.
    Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLAand author of Silent Messages showed in a landmark study that when there is incongruency people will believe what they see and hear more than what is said. His findings for trust and believability:

    • Verbal (content, what is said) = 7%
    • Vocal (how we hear the speaker) = 38%
    • Visual (what we see of the speaker) = 55%

    For more see: Seeing is Believing.

    And the problem is that in business and professional life we most often are giving incongruent messages. Think of the boring and ineffective meetings, lectures, speeches that you have had to sit through. And then think of PowerPoint Abuse… well, that’s for another time.

  • Most of our decisions to trust or believe a person are made at the unconscious level.In my book You’ve Got To Be Believed To Be Heard I call it the ‘First Brain.’ Malcolm Gladwell in his great book Blink calls it the adaptive unconscious. Without getting into a lot of detail, in the center of our cerebral cortex there is the limbic system (our emotions) and brain stem (our unconscious habits are housed here.) Together they make up our pre- or unconscious brain.

    The fact is that all of our sensory input — the nerve pathways from our eyes and ears for visual and auditory — and taste, touch and smell as well — go into our First Brain first, before they are shunted out into our conscious cerebral cortex thinking brain. So at the unconscious level, we are making many emotionally slanted decisions before we even can think about them.This is why I say in my sessions that, “People buy on emotion and justify with fact.” That’s why we all have said at one time or another, “I’m not sure why but I just don’t trust that guy.” These are communication decisions that will impact whether we believe a person, or not.

    In Blink, Gladwell calls it “thin slicing.” See First Impressions: Blink – and the power of Thin Slicing.

    He says (accurately) that whether we like it or not we make decisions in about two seconds, thin slicing by taking the part that we have absorbed and unconsciously making it the whole. I’m talking about communication decisions here, but he expands it into life and death decisions as well.

  • People are taught that if we say the words people will get them.But alas, it’s not true. Reading the words, yes. That is the true nature of academia and intellectual pursuit – we write and then someone reads, and information is conveyed. And the words are not colored by anything but black and white print.
    In person, on the other hand, speaking — why there we have millions of colors. There are voluminous visual and sound stimuli from the speaker that are going to color what we hear. Whether we like it or not. Most often at the unconscious level. The sound of the voice, ums and ahs, resonance, timbre or squeakiness. And thousands more eye inputs — hands clasped nervously in the fig leaf stance, no smile or great smile, no eye contact or great eye contact, no energy or animation in gestures or great animation, etc. The list goes on and on.People say the words, and they do count, but they will not get through unless the purveyor of those words has a confidence and certainty that is reflected in his or her voice and visual behavior. It goes well beyond the cliché of body language. It means impact or not, trust and believability or not, effectiveness or not.

If we just want to inform, we can do it effectively in writing. After all, people can read five times faster than we can hear or speak. But if we want to influence, adding the color and enthusiasm of passion and eloquence, then the spoken “word” should be our medium of choice.

Why don’t they teach spoken communications separately at Yale? Why don’t they teach effective communicating in speaking at the many other institutions that want to make an impact and influence the world?

Oh well, if they did I guess I wouldn’t have a thriving business.

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