It’s Not WHAT You Say That Really Matters

Have you ever been around a great storyteller? They could say anything to you and you’d be immediately drawn in? I was in Portland a few months ago on business and spent the evening with my sister-in-law, Sheri, and her family. Listening to Sheri talk about the daily routine of her dog Scooter can be the most engaging theater in the northwest. She will have me laughing one moment and crying the next.

On the other hand, we all know people that can completely suck the energy out of a conversation, regardless of the topic. Recently I listened to a man discuss a life and death situation of his friend. After a few painfully boring moments it was easy to drift off and think about dinner; not the train of thought you want someone to have when they are discussing your mortality.

The lesson? HOW you say something is more powerful than WHAT you say. Let me repeat, HOW you say something is more powerful than WHAT you say. I like how story authority, Robert McKee, author of the screenwriter’s bible “STORY” said it:

“Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal. You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.”

Why is this? Why is the HOW more powerful than the WHAT? Much of the answer lies in research done by Albert Mehrabian (Professor of Psychology, UCLA), on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages, in his book “Silent Messages.” It has become known as the 7-38-55 Rule. Although the work was done in 1971, it has been corroborated with many other studies since then. The 7-38-55 Rule states:

•         7% of our communications come through our WORDS

•         38% of our communications come through our VOICE

•         55% of our communications come through our BODY LANGUAGE

Notice that 93% of our communication is non-verbal (38% + 55%), this is the HOW. 7% is verbal, this is the WHAT.

If you don’t believe this statistic, try this little experiment. Next time you are with your significant other, tell them “I love you very much, you give my life meaning and happiness.” But when you say it, never make eye contact, mumble your words, look at your phone like you’re checking for a text, and finally roll your eyes. Let me know who ended up paying for dinner.

Think about your last business presentation or speech, how much time did you spend working on your WHAT? How much on your HOW? Chances are, most of it was on your WHAT and very little, if any, on your HOW. So if HOW we say something is more powerful than WHAT we say, how can you ensure you’re creating the right buzz in your business communications, speeches and presentations? Here are some tips:

  • Show your passion: Let your excitement show; we enjoy watching passionate people talk, even when they’re selling us something.
  • Lose the fluff: Put your words on a diet, and cut the fat. Narrow your communication to a few ideas so they can be easily recalled and retold. Use “coffee shop” (conversational) words, not “marketing” (excessive) words.
  • Find your “magnet words”: Certain words can be highly charged to your listener; find these words and use them. When I speak to sales people I talk about “deal-killers;” or yours might be a unique benefit you provide. Draw attention to your “magnet words” with your volume, tone or speed.
  • Be the mime, but lose the grease paint: Practice communicating your message with your body alone, like a mime, and see if you don’t pick up some “added impact.” But remember, be YOURSELF, or you will scare the children.
  • Discover your WHY: Three men were working on a building site. When asked what they were doing, the first man answered ‘I am laying stones.’ The second said ‘I am making a wall’ and the third replied ‘I am building a cathedral.’ Purpose leads to passion, and passion gives you power. Keep asking yourself, who benefits from my product? How is my product changing the world? Your WHY will drive your HOW for either good or bad.
  • Learn the power of the pause: Few things can draw attention like a pause; it’s the wind-up to a pitch, it’s the silence before the starting gun, it’s the moment right after “and the winner is…” Pauses create suspense, and it lets your audience chew and digest what you just gave them.
  • Don’t be afraid of humor: You don’t need to be a stand-up comedian, but if you have an ironic or humorous element to your message or story, have a little fun with it. A fun comic strip, a story about yourself or a coworker will work if it is pertinent to your message.
  • Read your audience: You’ll be able to see if your delivery style is engaging your audience if you look for it. If they’re drifting, try a more engaging approach; you can tell by their eyes if they are with you.
  • Practice: Poor delivery can neuter your message faster than anything. Practice, practice, practice! But don’t just practice, practice perfection. Practice makes permanent, so have a trusted coach give you feedback until you’re happy with the delivery. If you have access to a 6+ year old child, try practicing part of your pitch to them, if nothing else you’ll have your funny story about yourself.

Whether you’re trying to sell the big deal to make quota, or just looking to not embarrass yourself at the next business dinner, HOW you deliver your message or story can make all the difference. Few things will pay off more for you than improving your ability to be an effective storyteller and communicator.

As the American Poet, William Carlos Williams said, “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.”

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2 Responses to It’s Not WHAT You Say That Really Matters

  1. Greg Guymon says:

    Well said Kevin, and I have heard you speak enough to know that you “walk the walk”

  2. Charlie says:


    I believe that how you tell your story is very important, but I don’t buy the content being as low as 7% idea. I’m not alone, the source of those figures (Albert Mehrabian) himself states:

    “Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable”

    Read some more about this here,

    or just think about it yourself.

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