How firmly steeped in science are the recommendations that media trainers give to their clients? Over the years I discovered that a great many of the facts on message delivery fellow media trainers anywhere in the world impart on their clients are simply not true or are wanting for a more accurate interpretation.
It is time to come clean with current misconceptions and make media trainings more evidence-based. Here is a look at three of the common myths about message delivery that persist till this day.
At all times, a message needs to be repeated three times
Apparently the brain of a journalist (or his audience if the interview is recorded) needs to be exposed to a message three times before it is understood. No matter what the topic is and the context of the interview. Should I repeat this two times now? There is no scientific grounding for any such blanket number. The amount of times an audience needs to be exposed to a message for it to process what has been said, recall the message or be persuaded by it depends to a large extent on its involvement (and there are some additional factors that come into play such as prior knowledge of the topic at hand). If a certain topic is highly relevant to an audience, you will have to hammer less on your message than if your audience is disconnected. Let me give you a telling example: If a college boy hears from his girlfriend that she is breaking up with him, does he need to hear it three times in order to pick up the information or will one delivery of the bad news suffice? I think I made my point.
Despite the fact that it really does not make sense to look for any one size fits all number, marketers and PR professionals have persisted in their effort to find such number. One global PR agency that specializes in trust has asked people how many times they need to hear a message in order to find it credible. The answer the agency received was three to five times. It looks good on a slide but self-reporting will not bring us any closer to the truth.
Finally on this point, let me be clear, especially for recorded audiovisual interviews that end up being cut, some repetition is not a bad thing – as long as you don’t go overboard and become a parroting spokesperson – so I am not taking aim at repetition per se, but do have an issue with dangling a magical number of desired repeats in front of any spokesperson.
You should not use negative statements
Will you be able to remember later on what you read in the above subheader? A great many media trainers are adamant that you should not speak in negations at any time when answering questions from a journalist. But is that really so? It seems that the missive to refrain from negations at all cost comes from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), whereby questionable assumptions from NLP about the functioning of the human mind have been introduced in the daily practice of media trainers either by people who are NLP-practitioners or who have been influenced by the viewpoints from NLP-practitioners (whereby they will not always have known that those viewpoints were rooted in NLP thought).
What does the science say? Recent research from two Tufts University researches (Mante S. Nieuwland and Gina R. Kuperberg) tells us that the way that negative statements are processed in the brain depends on the structure of the sentence. A negation, when it is useful and informative, is no bigger challenge for the brain than a positive statement. It is only when the negation is what is called a “pragmatically unlicensed statement” that it becomes difficult to process. An example of such a statement would be “Reading articles from the Institute for Public Relations website is not bad for your understanding of PR”. The negation does not add any value (since the reader already thought – I hope – that reading the copy was not detrimental to understanding PR) and that makes the sentence – according to the research – difficult to process.
Words only account for 7% of the impact of your communication
I saved the best for last. In the sixties and seventies psychologist Albert Mehrabian studied the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. If you have ever heard in a seminar or in a training session about the 7-38-55 rule, then you have Mehrabian to thank for that, or better: an erroneous interpretation of the findings of Mehrabian. Mehrabian found that when there are conflicts between what is said (spoken words) and non-verbal communication (voice and body language) in what a person tells you about his or her feelings or attitude towards you, the receiver of the information will decide on what to believe based on body language (55%), voice (38%) and words (7%).1
Mind how specific and limited the context of the Mehrabian findings was. Nonetheless, it did not keep communication consultants and media trainers from putting his findings in simple slogans, such as the one that says that when you communicate to a journalist (or his or her audience) your words will only account for seven percent of the impact of your communication. A regretful result from the erroneous interpretation of the findings of Mehrabian is that the whole notion that non-verbal communication is of importance in the delivery of messages suffered undue reputational damage. But it should not have. Of course also non-verbal communication matters to how communication is perceived. A well-rounded media training will cover both verbal and non-verbal communication.
Where do we go from here?
Just like in other fields of the communications consultancy practice also media trainings have seen the introduction of insights of which the credentials are at close examination more than questionable. Why is that? I do not have all the answers to that question. Consultants are enamored with simple formulas because they are both easy to explain (for the consultant) and easy to digest (for the audience). The 7-38-55 rule makes for an easy flipchart routine. Maybe findings that make sense intuitively are popular because they appeal to imagined realities that are easy for everyone to comprehend. Would it not make much sense for the brain to be a computer that has a much easier time processing positives than negatives? It makes so much sense that we (and yes, I was one of those consultants) are all too happy to believe it. Too bad that much of it is not true.
So where do we go from here? What can turn the body of knowledge for media trainers more evidence-based than it is today? Media trainers are not equipped to purge their slide decks themselves. One reason (among others) is that they are (aside from rare examples) not trained psychologists. Making media trainings more grounded in science can only happen through an effort in which also the scientific community is involved. One potential partner for such an endeavor could be the Institute for Public Relations (IPR). The IPR could make available a body of knowledge with scientifically sound insights on verbal and non-verbal delivery techniques that are recommended for media training sessions. Such guidance would surely help practitioners see the forest through the trees. With this article I invite the IPR to kick-start such project.
Jo Detavernier, SCMP, APR is a communications consultant and media trainer with more than 15 years of experience. He is a partner and VP in Swyft, an Austin, TX based PR and marketing agency. On his personal website he writes about the science behind public relations. Follow him on Twitter:@jodetavernier.
 Effects of message repetition on argument processing, recall and persuasion by John T. Cacioppo and Richard E. Petty, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1989, 10(1):3-12
 When the Truth is not Too Hard to Handle by Mante S. Nieuwland and Gina R. Kuperberg. Psychological Science, 2008, 19(12): 1213-1218.
Three cheers for language: A closer examination of a widely cited study of nonverbal communication by David Lapakko. Communication Education, 1997, 46(1): 63-67.