Dana  Bristol-Smith

Article Summary:

Busting the myth that "how you say it is more important that what you say".

How You Say It Is NOT More Important Than What You Say

Just about every communication consultant, trainer, coach, or speaker I have heard, always quotes a study done by Albert Mehrabian from UCLA which supposedly concluded that how you look and how you sound are more important than what you actually say.

Well, I'm sick of hearing it!

This study has been quoted incorrectly more times than I care to count. But if I was counting, it would be almost as many times as Pluto was called a planet and more times than there are stars in the sky. Okay, maybe not, but a whole bunch of times. You get my point, and I hope my frustration.

I want to state clearly and plainly:

What you say is more important than how you say it.

And, even more important:

What you do, the actions you take, are more important than what you say.

To quote Mehrabian himself from the preface of his book Silent Messages.

"Indeed, in the realm of feelings, our facial and vocal expressions, postures, movements, and gestures are so important that WHEN OUR WORDS CONTRADICT THE MESSAGES CONTAINED within them, others mistrust what we say--THEY RELY ALMOST COMPLETELY ON WHAT WE DO". (caps supplied by me)

Because of the false conclusions drawn from the study, we've been led to believe--and have not questioned it, that it's only how we say things--and how we look when we say them, that really matters.

In other words, style is more important than substance.

I say NOT!

Let's think back in history for a moment. President Abraham Lincoln was one of the most famous orators in United States history. As we look at first-hand accounts of Lincoln's speeches, he had been described as awkward, squeaking, and unpleasant. However, he held his audiences in rapt attention.

"Lincoln's voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered." --William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887

"Mr. Lincoln spoke nearly two hours and we believe he would have held his audience had he spoken all night." -- Dover (New Hampshire) Inquirer, March 8, 1860

Yes, it's important to let the strength of your convictions be heard in your words and show in your emotions, tone, and gestures. You will be more believable if you are congruent in all of the above.

Let's update our discussion and stop talking about how look--or style, is more important than substance. I agree that style is important, but certainly not more important than what you say.

If you have a hollow message with a pretty package - you still have a hollow message.

Remember the saying: Actions speak louder than words?

Our actions and our follow through are probably the most important barometers of our success and in how we are perceived by others.

It is our actions that:

  • Show the strength of our convictions
  • Will get us in trouble if they are out of integrity or unethical
  • Let people know whether they can trust and count on us

A term that we use often these days in relation to leaders and also speaking is authentic. Authentic means real--not phony , what you see is what you get. It means that your words are truthful, meaningful, and even heartfelt.

Be authentic when you have ideas and opinions to share. Let your passion and emotions show when you feel strongly about something. Let the strength of your convictions guide you to make the best decisions and take the best actions that you can.

Please remember that what you say is more important than how you say it!

And, what you do - the actions that you take, are more important than the words you say.

Dana Bristol-Smith is the founder of Speak for Success, an organization that works with companies that want their people to communicate with confidence and credibility. She is the author of Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking interactive manual. Dana works primarily with managers, sales and technical professionals and has delivered presentations and training to more than 100,000 people since 1992. For more information, visit Speakforsuccess.net

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