Is it what you say or how you say it?

I’ve had a lot of occasion lately to give tips on presentation techniques, and I’ve noticed that at first concentrating on your own body language can make you feel very self-conscious.  This problem makes me thing of the old question, “which is more important, what you say or how you say it?”  Which will it be, style or substance?

When you’re in the process of coaching people on their body language, it’s easy to create the impression that you think the more important part is “how you say it.”    After all, we’re not focusing on the message itself, but only on the craft we use to communicate it.   But the reality is that the medium is not more important than the message.    Nor is the message more important than the medium.   Just asking “which is more important” is forcing a false choice.

Sometimes people in show business like to compliment a performer by saying, “he could read the phone book and the audience would be enthralled!”   Maybe such a thing is possible.  There probably is a performer out there with such charisma and skill that he could entertainingly read from the white pages.  For a minute!   After that the audience would be wondering, “what’s the point of this exercise?”  There would be nothing in the presentation that would relate to the audience’s lives.  No matter how much body your presentation has, there must be some soul in there, too.

No, the style is not more important than the substance, but the style is crucial.   Why?  Because the most important feature of non-verbal communication is that people trust it.  When your non-verbal signals conflict with what you have to say, nobody believes your words.   Imagine Churchill delivering the line, “Never give in!  Never. Never. Never. Never.,”  with a quaver in his voice.    Not only would he have failed to lift up a nation, his words would have had the opposite effect. 

My Churchill example may be extreme, but all of us have behaviors and mannerisms that we are not aware of, and sometimes these behaviors can be at odds with the words that we say.    The goal of studying non-verbal communication is to bring our behaviors and words into harmony.  The meaning that our listeners take away is not in either our words or our body language, but in the combination of the two.

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