Master Your Message Blog

Presentation Style Versus Substance?

If you’ve been watching the ups and downs of the US presidential race, and been paying attention to the media pundits, you’ve no doubt heard the discussions in recent days about “style versus substance.” This is in direct relation to the television debate between President Barak Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.

The argument is over whether it’s more effective to focus on the substance of your presentation, rather than how you deliver it – your presentation “style.” What’s the most effective means of making your point and winning over your audience?

The answer to this question may rest within the work of Albert Mehrabian, known to most presentation coaches, but misquoted (in my experience) as often as his work is cited.

The Obama/Romney debate is an excellent example of his key principle at work.

Albert Mehrabian

Mr. Mehrabian looked at three aspects of communication – content, tone, and visual. He was measuring what happens when someone gives you mixed messages.It’s like going to the supermarket and having the checkout clerk robotically say, “Have a great day!” with little, or no expression. That’s a mixed message. The words are there, but the passion is missing.

It’s simply not believable.

What Mr. Mehrabian found is that the tone of your voice trumps the words, and your facial expressions and gestures are by far the most powerful – they influence how you perceive the rest of the message and delivery.

Being persuasive requires understanding the audience

Mehrabian’s chart

When your words don’t match your feelings, moods, or beliefs, the nonverbal will win out every time. So … if you’re doing a sales presentation and don’t really believe in the product, the signs will be there. Your audience won’t be comfortable. They won’t believe you’re sincere.

What’s more, whenever there’s a conflict between the conscious and the nonconscious, the nonconscious will always win. Always. Here’s my video on just this subject.

So what Barak Obama did was to overpower his substance with a tone and non-verbal gestures that transmitted a sense of disinterest … even boredom. That was the overpowering message we took away. It doesn’t matter what he said (or rather, it matters less).

Mr. Romney, on the other hand, came across as energetic, helpful, passionate. There wasn’t a lot of substance. But the contrast in the non-verbal between him and Mr. Obama sent a very clear message.

More Importantly …

The more important question is whether you’ve connected with your audience on an emotional level. Neither debater talked directly to their intended audience using words their audience could relate to. Neither related the information they presented to the daily lives of the American people – how their vision would impact the well-being of their audience going forward.

This was in stark contrast to the recent conventions. The republican convention seemed more focused on logic, but had little substance, and was not heavy in emotional appeal. The democratic convention, on the other hand, focused in on individual stories the audience could relate to. They made that emotional connection to their audience far more effectively than the republican convention experience. As a result, Obama picked up points and took a strong lead in the polls.

However, that lesson seems to have been forgotten in the most recent debate. Here’s the underlying principle we need to keep in mind:

“We make decisions based on emotion;
we justify those decisions based on facts.”

The winner of the race to the White House will be the one who makes that emotional connection. It will take a combination of substance and style. The delivery will need to be consistent with the actual message. What do you think? And how does this apply to your own presentations and speeches?

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