Style or substance – what is more important in oral communication?

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The dilemma of choosing between style and substance in oral communication is both global and ancient. Teachers of communication, ardent admirers of the field, philosophers of human conduct and thoughts both past and present have grappled with some pertinent questions – how do style and substance intermingle in oral communication; what percentage of style is enough; will the communication fail if style is not adequately interwoven into the narrative, among others.


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 commonsensical 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?


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.

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In other words, there is no right or wrong way or an adequately successful way of measuring how much style should accompany 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.


Watch the video to learn more:

Following is the edited transcript of the video.


Here’s today’s question: 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?

This debate of style versus substance has been around for thousands of years; style is how we speak in front of people – our facial expressions, tone, and delivery techniques. On the other hand, substance is the content of our speech and the data we put in it.

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 an 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.

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 corporates and government offices are not receptive to an animated style of 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.


Watch the video on YouTube



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