Style or Substance - What is More Important in Oral Communication?

Style or Substance - What is More Important in Oral Communication?

Published On: 18th October 2021 | Updated On: 23rd November 2023

Style or substance? The age-old struggle in oral communication that's still going strong worldwide. Teachers of communication, ardent admirers of the field, philosophers of human conduct and thoughts have long wrestled with the question: how much style is enough to complement substance in oral communication? Join the debate and discover the perfect balance!

Table of Contents

Style vs. Substance

Style and substance are two critical components of effective communication, and striking the right balance between the two can be a challenge. Style refers to the way in which the message is delivered, including the tone, pace, pitch, and vocabulary used. Substance, on the other hand, refers to the actual content of the message, including the facts, arguments, and evidence presented.


In some cases, style can be more important than substance, particularly in situations where the audience is less interested in the details and more focused on the delivery. For example, a motivational speaker may rely heavily on style to engage and inspire their audience, using rhetorical devices, powerful stories, and other techniques to create an emotional connection.


However, in most cases, substance is more important than style, particularly in situations where the audience is looking for information, analysis, and facts. For example, in a business presentation, the audience will be more interested in the substance of the message, including the financial data, market analysis, and strategic plans.

In order to be effective communicators, it is essential to strike the right balance between style and substance. This means using style to enhance the substance of the message, rather than allowing style to overshadow or detract from the substance. In addition, it is important to understand the audience and tailor the style and substance of the message to their needs and interests. By striking the right balance between style and substance, communicators can achieve their goals and connect with their audience in a meaningful way.

Importance of Style and Substance

Importance of Style and Substance

Plato, student of the father of Western philosophy, Socrates was very particular about how communication should be communicated. He despised rhetoric and urged people to deliver the truth as is. He didn’t regard the ‘art of oratory’ very highly and considered it a tool of persuasion and not necessarily a means towards truth. It was a stand that was not echoed by his disciple and colleague of 20 years, Aristotle, who felt how the truth is presented is equally important, leading to an understandable view among some observers calling his philosophy practical and common-sensical while Plato’s as abstract and utopian.

More recently, in 1996, Bill Gates wrote his iconic essay ‘Content is King’. He vehemently threw his weight behind the importance of content, prompting many to quote this line when arguing the importance of substance. But, though valid in the world of computers and written communication, does the mere use of content without embellishments like expressions, tonal changes, gestures – integral to human behaviour – work in a face-to-face conversation?

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Not according to many body language experts. Some state that even before we start speaking, our mannerisms and personality are under scrutiny, conveying important messages about our confidence and awareness of the subject matter at hand. The way we employ style in the communication of our message will further solidify the audience’s reaction – whether negative or positive. On the contrary, some assert that having strong, robust content will automatically infuse speakers with confidence, manifesting in an instantly connecting style. In this argument, substance not only takes precedence over style but also dictates it. In other words, there is no right or wrong way or an adequately successful way of measuring how much style should accompany substance.

What Experts Say about Style and Substance?

In his latest video of Conversations with Rakesh, SoME Founder Dr Rakesh Godhwani says audience reaction is also an important component to consider. How the two – style and substance – should intermingle, and the percentage each should be accorded have been a matter of great debate between philosophers and communication experts for aeons, he adds. Ultimately, the combination depends on many factors, primarily the audience listening to the speech and their reaction. So, pepper your well-researched speech with some style elements but be mindful of your audience; if they don’t appreciate the theatrics, be prepared to change tactics immediately, he says.

According to some puritans of knowledge like Plato, it is necessary not to flavour the message with too much theatrics and deliver the truth as is. However, many people, including some of his disciplines like Aristotle, who believed in the importance of context and audience when framing a message, disagreed with Plato. Many also asserted that truth alone is not enough; how it is presented is also important, leading to the formation of two schools of thought on how communication should be presented.

Audience enjoys some theatrics

Research has shown that audiences tend to react more to what they see than what they hear. However, this doesn’t mean that we should start miming or acting in front of our audiences, but it is essential to realise our listeners enjoy some level of expressive actions and tonality changes.   We are gifted with these techniques. After all, when we speak to our near and dear ones, we are very animated. However, should that energetic behaviour be reflected in our conversations or presentations in front of our peers, colleagues and corporates? It is necessary to ask that question and make the bifurcation between personal and professional communication styles because, in the latter domain, one feels they are being artificial or inauthentic when they become too expressive.

We are sometimes given feedback in colleges and schools that don’t do drama or tell stories, just come to the point. It is important feedback that should be taken in context. We have to understand that some people respond more to style than substance and vice versa.

Let’s look at a simple example; you are given a dish that looks exquisite but tastes bland. It will not satisfy you. Similarly, a communication that is packaged beautifully but is devoid of any substance will leave you wondering what the presentation or speech was all about. Contrarily, if the food is filling and tasty but looks gross and unappetising, it will still leave you feeling underwhelmed.

This example perfectly encapsulates my thought that good communication should be a healthy mix of both style and substance, and how much the two should blend should be dictated by the audience reaction. And, this is where your audience analysis comes in handy.

Read your audience

Some people are not very conducive to too much style. I know such people; most of them are around us in academia, corporate office, financial institutes, even in our families. Their faces remain unanimated, and they enjoy the straight talk, and that is fine.

Read your audience

But not everyone is like that. There are many, like me, who enjoy good, animated conversations because we get and connect with the energy at display.

So, style is necessary but not in every presentation. Some presentations need more focus on the content, and some need more emphasis on the style.

Many of us come from a structured education system where we memorise our lessons and don’t realise the importance of expressing with our faces, voices and bodies. If we take the brain scans of audiences listening to two speakers – one with a straightforward style and another with a more animated way of communicating, the listeners will be more engaged with the latter. However, I should warn people from jumping from one extreme to the other. Don’t go from having no animated gestures to an overly dramatic style of delivery. Ease into it slowly, so you become more comfortable using animated gestures, tonal changes, and how much of these to use.

Start small

Take small steps, like a simple greeting with good energy, can be a starting point. Or an uncomplicated gesture like using your fingers to indicate a number such as three. These minor actions can make a speech or presentation more engaging without going overboard.

It is important to remember that you don’t have to become an extreme orator from day one and sacrifice your personal style. Authenticity is paramount. If you like to communicate straightforwardly, suddenly employing dramatic gestures can leave your audience confused.

Deep inside, we are all expressive people, but we are uncomfortable demonstrating that behaviour because of societal judgement and conditioning. Also, many corporate and government offices are not receptive to an animated style of effective communication. If I go to these places, my communication style has to accommodate their needs. This is where audience analysis comes in handy. It helps me tweak my communication style depending on the audience. For example, I am animated when taking a class, but my style changes when talking to investors.

So, apply simple techniques, take small steps. The audience enjoys engaging presentations, and you will also enjoy more if you enhance your delivery techniques. However, if you can’t be animated, that’s fine. You don’t have to feel bad; acknowledge your style and make it work for you.

And once you are clear on which path to take, your mind will become a lot more stabilised, you will become more confident, and your communication will become more engaging.


In conclusion, both style and substance are important for effective communication. Effective communication requires a balance of both style and substance. Without substance, even the most engaging delivery style will fall short, as the message will lack credibility and fail to persuade the audience. Similarly, without an engaging delivery style, even the most substantive message will fail to capture the audience's attention and interest. By balancing style and substance, communicators can create powerful and persuasive messages that engage their audience and achieve their desired outcome.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. I am uncomfortable using expressions, voice modulation and body movement when speaking. I feel I am not authentic and that others may perceive me to be artificial. Are these delivery skills essential for my presentation and communication?

While expressions, voice modulation, and body movement can enhance your oral communication, they are not essential for every presentation or communication situation. It is possible to communicate effectively without these delivery skills, but it may require additional effort and preparation.

However, it is important to note that these skills can also help you convey your message more effectively and connect with your audience. They can help you emphasise important points, demonstrate your enthusiasm and confidence, and make your message more engaging and memorable.

If you feel uncomfortable using these delivery skills, it may be helpful to practice them in a low-stakes setting such as with a friend or in front of a mirror. This can help you become more comfortable and natural with these skills.

It is also important to remember that being authentic is crucial in oral communication. You don't need to adopt a particular style or mannerism that doesn't feel natural to you. Instead, focus on finding a delivery style that works for you and allows you to communicate your message effectively while still being true to yourself.

Ultimately, the goal of effective communication is to connect with your audience and deliver your message in a way that resonates with them. Finding a balance between being authentic and using delivery skills that enhance your message can help you achieve that goal.

2. What is the path to effective oral communication?

The path to effective oral communication involves several key steps:

Determine your purpose: First, it is important to identify your purpose for communication. Are you trying to inform, persuade, or entertain your audience? Knowing your purpose will help you tailor your message and communication style to achieve your desired outcome.

Know your audience: Understanding your audience's knowledge, interests, and communication preferences will help you connect with them more effectively. Adjust your message and tone to fit their needs and expectations.

Plan and organise your message: Plan what you want to say and organise your message logically. Make sure your points are clear and concise, and use supporting examples and evidence when appropriate.

Practice your delivery: Practice your delivery to improve your speaking skills. This can include rehearsing in front of a mirror or with a friend, or recording yourself and analyzing your performance.

Use nonverbal communication: Nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language can enhance your message and convey emotions and emphasis. Be mindful of your nonverbal communication and use it intentionally.

Listen actively: Effective oral communication is a two-way street. Practice active listening by paying attention to your audience's responses and adjusting your message accordingly.

Seek feedback: Finally, seek feedback from others to improve your oral communication skills. Ask for constructive criticism and take it into consideration when practicing and delivering your message.

3. What are the major 3 components of oral communication?

The major three components of oral communication are:

Verbal Communication: This component involves the use of spoken words to convey a message. It includes the words we choose, the tone of voice we use, and the way we structure our sentences and phrases. Verbal communication also encompasses the use of language, grammar, and vocabulary.

Nonverbal Communication: This component includes all the elements of communication that are not spoken or written, such as body language, facial expressions, gestures, and eye contact. Nonverbal communication can convey emotions, attitudes, and intentions, and can either enhance or detract from the verbal message.

Paralinguistics: This component involves the use of vocal elements to enhance or modify the meaning of words. It includes elements such as pitch, tone, inflection, volume, and speed of speech. Paralinguistic cues can convey a range of emotions, from enthusiasm to boredom, and can help to emphasise or clarify the meaning of the verbal message.

Together, these three components of oral communication work together to create a comprehensive and effective message that can be understood and interpreted by the audience.

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