You Need Both the Steak AND the Sizzle

Recently we read a most interesting account (on a wonderful site called Futility Closet) of an experiment conducted in 1970 at the University of Southern California School of Medicine that proved that, if the speaker is enthusiastic and displays engaging body language, the audience will give him/her a high approval rating, even if what she/he is speaking is absolute nonsense.

In the experiment, an actor playing “Dr. Myron L. Fox” delivered a lecture on mathematical game theory that was filled with “excessive use of double-talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradicting statements” to three groups of psychiatrists and psychologists, including both professionals and graduate students. “Despite the emptiness of his lecture,” reported professor Deborah J. Merritt, “fifty-five psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, graduate students, and other professionals produced evaluations of Dr. Fox that were overwhelmingly positive.”

Is it always the case that style trounces substance? How often do we judge candidates for office based not on their actual skills and knowledge but on their charisma? How often do we rate certain teachers as boring and others as interesting? How often do we recommend trainers who offer more “edutainment” than their more subdued counterparts?

(Full disclosure: Once, while Ellen was teaching in China, after class a student came up to her and said, “Professor Dowling, I so enjoy your class. It’s like watching a cartoon!” Should Ellen have taken that as a compliment? Actually, she did.)

Let’s take a break here and think back to the trainers/teachers/presenters/lecturers in our lives who not only kept us awake, but actually taught us something. Were they always gesturing broadly, did they all have animated faces, did they all use body movement to get away from the lectern and engage the audience, did they always make compelling eye contact? Ellen remembers an English professor who sat during the class and made few expansive gestures, but brought the whole class to tears when she described the last days of the poet John Milton. And then there was the drama teacher who perched calmly on the desk, yet made the plays of Scandinavians Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg come alive. And how about more well-known figures, like Al Gore, who comes across as fairly scholarly and pedantic, but whose passion for dealing with the devastating consequences of climate change (and a whole bunch of amazing visuals) makes “An Inconvenient Truth” so memorable?

Bottom line, it’s always going to be passion plus knowledge that produces the most effective results. A charismatic speaker who knows all the facts, speaks the truth, and connects with people’s real lives will win out every time over an entertaining speaker who leaves the audience at the end wondering, “That was really fun. But did we actually learn anything?” Style without substance won’t work. Just the sizzle will leave you hungry. You always need to know your stuff.

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