There are many “truths” about public speaking, and presentations, that have been spread throughout the years. Well, it turns out that they may not all be true.

Fortunately, we’ve enlisted the help of Joshua Davies, former faculty at Yonsei University in Seoul and now a corporate consultant at the LAM Institute, to help us understand what the 3 biggest public speaking myths are. In case you don’t know, Yonsei is one of Korea’s “SKY” universities, or one of the top 3 universities in the country. I think you’re all going to learn a lot and really enjoy Joshua’s style and knowledge.

Featured Pro: Joshua Davies – “The 3 Myths of Public Speaking”


A search on for “public speaking” brings up nearly 10,000 results. If you were to read just one public speaking book a week it would take you 192 years to make your way through them all (and just in English…and assuming no others were published during those two centuries). How does one begin to choose whatʼs worth reading?

For me, I want to hear from people who arenʼt just repeating what theyʼve heard before- I want to know that those I get advice from are real experts, or at least have been diligent enough to research the claims they make. One of the fastest ways Iʼve found to sort out those presentation experts who have “done their homework” versus those who are just coasting by, is to see if they use one of the Big 3 public speaking myths. If they do, they fail the litmus test: after all, why would I spend time listening to “experts” who havenʼt really dug into their own field? How many of the Big 3 have you already heard?

1. The 7-38-55 Myth

The myth: When presenting to an audience, only 7% of your persuasive message comes from words, whereas 38% comes from your voice and 55% comes from your body language, according to research by Dr. Mehrabian.

The reality: Mehrabianʼs research was focused on a very narrow sub-set of presenting, and has been so often mis-applied and mis-quoted that he posts a notice on his own website regarding it: Presentation experts Olivia Mitchell and Max Atkinson have done a great job of explaining the confusion at: http:// communication-research/ and and-non-verbal.html.

Basically, itʼs not that body language and voice arenʼt important to getting a message across (in many cases they may be a more important factor than words in convincing an audience); itʼs just that a precise universal measurement of 7-38-55 doesnʼt hold water. Bert Decker has said that “We buy with emotion, and justify with logic,” and to a large extent this holds true with our presentations. Our presence and charisma before an audience define how convincing we are much sooner than words alone. We simply donʼt have a conveniently exact figure as to how much, and it likely varies from situation to situation. Alex Pentland and his team at MIT Media Labs have done some great work trying to figure out just how much we can predict if an audience will listen based on voice and body language alone ( and in some scenarios they can now anticipate outcomes with over 80% certainty!

Watch a video about this:

Why this myth sticks: This myth is by far the most persistent with presentation trainers because one of the things we as trainers really have to get our audiences to do is to actually practice. Most people spend most if not all of their time scripting and making their PowerPoints, and almost no time really getting comfortable with delivery. The 7-38-55 myth gives us a convenient proof that “hey! you better not spend so much time on content- get practicing!”

How you can use it: Great presence canʼt necessarily save a bad idea, but bad presence can certainly kill a great idea. Make certain youʼve spent at least half your prep time rehearsing out loud, preferably in front of others and recorded on video.

2. The Myth of Power Words

The myth: There is a list of words, researched by Yale Universityʼs psychology department, that are the most powerful to use in a speech.

The reality: While there are many copies of “the list” (see for example: http://, none of them are based on research from Yale, or any other known real research. The Language Log has done a great bit of detective work tracing down the origins of this myth (see languagelog/archives/003660.html and archives/003662.html). Basically an article years ago gave its opinion about the 10 most powerful words for persuasion in English, and it proved so popular that over the years the original idea accumulated all manner of imaginary credentials to go with it.

Why this myth sticks: We love top 10 lists, and clean simple answers. In reality word choice does matter, and how we say our message absolutely can change how our audience receives it and decides whether or not to believe and act on it, but it isnʼt as simple as “one list to rule them all.” As Pearl Strachan wrote “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” Whole companies are built on this idea, carefully crafting the speeches of politicians and CEOs to better resonate with their target audiences. Research has shown that changing just a few small words with politically loaded topics such as the phrase “climate change” can make all the difference as to whether an audience embraces or rejects it: all-in

How you can use it: The two key questions to ask yourself before any speech: is there a better/more engaging way to say this, and, how would my audience like to hear this? We always have to remember to speak to our audience, and not just to ourselves, when weʼre on stage.

Watch a video about this:

3. The Myth of Fear

The myth: Public speaking is the number one fear world wide according to research.

The reality: The most recent citation for this is a 1993 survey by the polling firm Bruskin- Goldring who called up 1000 adults in America and asked them to rank “about the things of which nightmares are made…”. In truth, many of those thousand polled did choose public speaking as a nightmare. However, this is a fairly small sample to make worldwide claims about, and on top of that the question wasnʼt even directly concerning daily real- world fears, but designed to elicit responses more of the nightmare variety. Richard Garber has a good dissection of the myth here: 2011/05/1993-survey-americas-number-one-fear.html

Why this myth sticks: Thereʼs a famous Jerry Seinfield quote on this topic: “According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. *Death* is number two! Now, this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” It sticks because many people really are afraid of public speaking, and the idea that it is even scarier than death is catchy and counter-intuitive. Glossophobia (the fear of pubic speaking) afflicts many people undoubtedly, but the exact number and degree is unknown.

How you can use it: Getting over fear can be done through a mixture of relaxation techniques, as well as good old fashioned practice. From a simple biological perspective, the more you give yourself chances to speak in public, the more your brain will become used to the stimulus, and the less likely the fear response will be activated.

About Joshua Davies:

Formerly faculty at Yonsei University, Joshua now trains and researches for LAM Institute, a boutique corporate consulting firm that works throughout Asia. Specializing in persuasive speaking, he utilizes a mix of experience, research-based techniques, and good old fashioned practice to enable clients to turn their ideas into audience memories. Through LAM Institute he’s worked with Fortune 500 and S&P Asia 50 companies throughout the region, conducting coaching and workshops on various areas of communications improvement (written, intercultural, presentations, team-building, etc.). An accomplished speaker, Joshua frequently serves as an invited presenter at workshops and conferences. He can be reached at or at