‘Alternative Facts’ – Words Are More Important Than You Think

I guess I had to talk about him at some point. Everyone else is. And when it comes to ‘awful’ presentations, or ‘awful’ presenters at least, they don’t come much more awful than Donald Trump. The particular item that drew my attention, though, was president Trump’s counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, inadvertently coining the term ‘alternative facts’ over the weekend. It’s the first time I’ve laughed since the election.

But that’s not what I wanted to highlight in this article. The interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press caught my attention for two reasons. First, me and Chuck go back a long way. Below is a page from my 2007 book, The Natural Presenter, which shows Chuck Todd and political analyst, David Gregory, deep in conversation.

Now, in fairness, I haven’t met Chuck or even spoken to him, but the picture struck me as a good image for the book, showing, as it does, experts boiling a complex topic down for a novice audience. This, I argued, is what all presentations should do. It was a prescient fluke that I picked Chuck Todd but maybe I have some of that magic ‘instinct’ that Donald Trump so values.

The second reason the Kellyanne Conway interview struck me is that it reminded me of the famous Mehrabian 7%-38%-55% rule for oral presentations. This endlessly cited rule says that the impact off what you say is only 7% dependent on the words you use, and is dominated by the tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%). But as Mehrabian himself would tell you, it’s complete nonsense.

I won’t go into the details of Mehrabian’s original experiments and how they have been misinterpreted, but the argument against the rule is as follows. If a friend told you they had just got engaged and you replied, ‘That’s terrific, she’s a great woman, you’ll be really happy together,’ in a dull monotone while checking your watch, then, yes, the meaning of the words would be heavily trumped (pardon the pun) by the way you said them. The problem comes, though, in generalising this rule (which people have persisted in doing for almost half a century) to all communication situations.

The point is that the things people say and the manner in which they say them are usually aligned. If a friend tells you she has cancer, you don’t have to remind yourself to adopt appropriate facial expressions. A shocked, grave, or concerned demeanour usually happens naturally. And the words your friend uses – the type of cancer, the treatment, the outlook, how they are feeling, how their family are coping – matter enormously. Saying that words have almost no importance in a presentation is absurd.

In recent years I’ve found myself flipping the Mehrabian rule completely. I’ve started to realise that, if you listen closely, words can actually be disproportionately revealing. Little words: prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, and odd combinations of ordinary words. Like ‘alternative facts’. You will hear the same type of thing in conversations and at meetings all the time. We can be so blinded by how someone comes across – their demeanour, their body language, their passion – that these words can be missed.

Facts and ‘alternative facts’. Kellyanne Conway inadvertently reveals how Donald Trump won the election.

For example, when someone is trying to understand something you are explaining and they say, ‘Oh, so it’s just…’ This may be an acknowledgement that you have made the idea simple but it may also be a suggestion that the idea is not that great. ‘Just.’ Or, at a meeting, if someone says, ‘OK, I think we’ve wasted enough time on this …’ you may ponder why they said ‘wasted’ instead of ‘expended’ or ‘devoted’. Or like the story of a friend of mine, at half-time in an acrimonious football match he was playing, stated, ‘It’s not my fault you’re losing.’ The pronouns ‘my’ and ‘you’re’ suggest that maybe he wasn’t really playing for team, that day.

Obviously this kind of dissection could lead to errors or even paranoia, but I do get great amusement, in conversations and at meetings, from examining the particular words people use and the subtext they can reveal. As a more general point, though, in presentations you would be well advised to choose your words carefully. Although presentations are necessarily brief and high-level, one mistake can blow your credibility completely. Words matter.

In that regard, in your work presentations, oddly, you will be held to a much higher standard of scrutiny than the leader of the free world. And if Donald Trump goes on to muzzle the press, start a dictatorship and hunt down his enemies, I’d just like to point out that although the words in this article have been quite critical, I didn’t mean them at all.

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