Russell Wardrop: What are words worth? A lot less than you think

Barack Obamas joke was perfect for Ellen DeGeneres presentation. Picture: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obamas joke was perfect for Ellen DeGeneres presentation. Picture: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
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Elvis is alive, man never walked on the moon and words account for 7 per cent of the impact when you speak. Well, there’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis and my late aunt Jeannie showed me the Hollywood set Neil Armstrong walked on. So Albert Meharabian’s 1967 study – that impact from speech is broken down as 7 per cent words, 38 per cent voice, 55 per cent body language – is the only one I know that is ­nonsense.

Theresa May, now starring in her own black Ealing comedy, has proved me right: character, connection and narrative are much more important than tone, pace and pitch.

In his treatises concerning rhetoric, from the Peripatetic school of ancient western ­philosophy, Aristotle gave us ethos, pathos and logos. On a broader canvas, he also ­influenced much of subsequent Christian, Islamic and Jewish philosophy and pre-enlightenment science, whereas Meharabian simply gauged ­participants’ reactions to single words.

Ethos, pathos and logos is a good starting point. I’ll give an equal weighting of 30 per cent to each, leaving ten per cent for the X Factor: charisma. Alastair Campbell says much of what made Tony Blair an ­outstanding speaker was the ten per cent he put in when the spotlight hit.

Logos is your knowledge. That is displaying knowledge, not just having it. There are no points for being too clever. Speaking to the purpose and staying on ­message, structuring with clarity and effectively keeping listeners onside make up this 30 per cent. The best speakers always appear to be doing it for you, not to you.

Pathos is how you reach out emotionally. That means ­elucidating your key ­messages with ­metaphor and ­analogy, ­saying it like you mean it and making them laugh. At the most poignant moment of his two ­minutes when giving Ellen DeGeneres the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Barack Obama changes the mood by saying, “we all want a tortilla chip that supports the weight of guacamole”.

A memorable, hilariously juxtaposed ­metaphor to use about ­someone who, two ­decades ago, came out at great ­personal cost.

Ethos is how you appear to listeners: Respect them by scrubbing up nice, stand straight, speak up. This is where Meharabian and I are on the same stage, because body language and voice matter, but half of this 30 per cent goes on character. For Aristotle and me, body ­language and voice get only five per cent each, down from 93 per cent. Another five goes on the right shoes: snazzy, not strong and stable. Five out of five for being well shod, PM.

The only disagreement Aristotle and I have is on how appropriate sandals are. We have increased the ­importance of words from Meharabian’s seven to 60 per cent, all of logos and pathos, because words are remembered long after Elvis has left the building.

Next time you address the troops it’s not a giant leap to believe your words are the most important thing, it’s one small step. Don’t get me ­started on Boris.

Russell Wardrop is CEO of Kissing With Confidence, which coaches business leaders in presentational skills.