It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you say it: powerful vs powerless speech

Anyone who does communication or presentation skills training is probably aware of the work of Albert Mehrabian PhD on the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages in face-to-face communications. The ‘7-38-55’ rule is that the content of speech (the actual words used by the speaker) accounts for only about 7% of meaning. The way it’s said (pitch and tone of the speaker’s voice for example) accounts for about 38% of meaning, and the body language of the speaker accounts for the remaining 55%. Which explains why, if you’re saying one thing, but your voice and body language are saying another, people are more likely to accept the message you give through your non-verbal clues, not the literal meaning of the words themselves.

So what happens when communications aren’t face-to-face, and the body language element is absent? I was intrigued when I heard Alison Fragale, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Strategy at the University of North Carolina on Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme on 23rd January. She talked about an experiment to find out what type of speech, a more powerful style or a more powerless style, is more conducive to gaining promotion in the workplace. I think most people with a background in business would say that an assertive style is a prerequisite.

She described powerless speech as a more submissive or tentative style, characterised by hesitation (e.g. ‘um’ and ‘well’), intensifiers (e.g. ‘very’ and ‘really’) as well as phrases like ‘don’t you think?’ and ‘I’m not really sure but’…’. Powerful speech, on the other hand, has none of these linguistic markers.

All the communications skills training I’ve ever come across is aimed at getting people to speak more confidently and assertively, but what Fragale’s experiment revealed is that it depends on how much interdependence there is in an organisation. If there is a high expectation that people will work collaboratively, then a submissive style is seen to be preferable, and people with this style of speech will be promoted. In organizations where people work independently, however, an assertive style will more likely lead to promotion.

Fragale’s advice to people in business is

1) to increase your awareness of the type of culture you’re working in,
2) practise the style of speech that will lead to the outcome you want, and
3) continually ask for feedback on your style of speech.

So it would seem, context, rather than content, is still very much king.

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