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55-38-7 Is this an accurate gauge of presentation impact?

I shared a ride to the airport with one of the attendees from a conference where I had just delivered a presentation on exceptional customer service. One of the points I made referenced the 55-38-7 ‘rule’. I put the word ‘rule’ in quotations because that’s the term that is usually used but I personally think it is a bit misleading. ‘Guideline’ would be better. 55-38-7 means this: when making a presentation, 55% of your impact on the audience is related to visual things…the setting, the speaker’s dress, AV aids, etc. 38% of the impact is related to tonality as it relates to both the actual sound and the accompanying emotions. (Does the presenter speak with conviction, resolve, passion, etc.) The final 7% of impact relates to the words themselves.

Now there are plenty of arguments out there that this entire idea is a bad misuse of the work originally done by Professor Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D. of the University of California back in the late 1960′s. Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. has an article on this topic that is worth reading. My travel companion raised another issue that deserves consideration. He questioned whether these percentages would be the same if measured today and if they would differ by age groups. Since we now do much more communication via email, twitter and even blogs like this one, aren’t there likely to be changes? An interesting thought and one that I would love to see researched.

But I think we’re missing the real point here. It’s not the actual percentages that are the main issue. It’s the core fact that each of these three areas, ‘visual’ ‘tonal’ and ‘words’ contribute in their own way to effective communication. Remove one or more of them and something, perhaps even a great deal, is being lost. My concern is that we are not doing enough to make up for those losses especially as more of our communication is being done electronically as opposed to face-to-face or even by phone.

Email is a prime example. With the loss of visual and tonal impact we should be spending a lot more time making sure that the ‘words’ are the most effective that we can find and that they are being used correctly. Unfortunately the reverse seems to be the case. Too much is being done in haste and most of it is being done badly to boot.

To provide Exceptional Customer Service we need to do all we can to make each encounter as personal and as effective as possible. That’s why I recommend that associations and businesses include photos of their staff members on their websites. Customers want to deal with PEOPLE and not faceless entities. Exceptional Customer Service is almost always related to a  memorable moment involving an encounter with a real human being. Photos and bios go a long way to help make that happen. Even Twitter gets it by making it possible to include a photo or personal icon along with your message.

So don’t worry about the relative percentages. It can be 55-38-7 or 33-33-34 or whatever. The importance is in understanding that there are many contributing factors and that when we lose even one of them we need to be making extra efforts to compensate. Exceptional Customer Service is too important to be relegated to words only.

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