The ongoing communication challenge

I finished last month’s column with a couple of questions: as a presenter, how do you capture the audience’s attention? What devices can you employ to communicate your message and spur people into action when they leave? Not being someone who would ask you to do something I am not prepared to do myself, I have been pondering on this subject. However, I have cogitated on this many times previously, especially before doing a presentation. Obviously, there is scope for improvement around the content of the slides and not assisting the audience too much in ‘death by PowerPoint’. There is then the more personal challenge of using body language to enhance communication with the audience.

When it comes to communication and body language, most of you will have heard values for the percentage that results from the actual words, the tone of the voice and the non-verbal body language. If pressed, before I sought out articles on the subject, I had the figure of approximately 80% in my mind for transmission by body language. However, the figures quoted by numerous articles are 7%, 38% and 55% for words, tone and body language, respectively. Herein lies our first lesson in communication: by simplifying the message, context is lost, resulting in misinterpretation and erroneous application.

The above percentages were produced in a 1971 study by Albert Mehrabian. However, he subsequently clarified that: “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable”. Our own experiences will be able to provide illustrations of where these percentages have applied, the body language contradicting the content of the words. Similarly, we can identify examples where the words convey a far greater portion of the message. As one website author suggested, in response to a question about what percentage of communication is body language, try watching a TED talk with the sound off and then just listen to the sound only. From this, you can then get an idea of how much each conduit contributes.

Unfortunately, there is no getting away from the fact that if you are communicating face to face, how you deliver the words has a significant impact. Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, conducted an experiment in which business ideas were presented to a group of assessors, who then selected and ranked the most promising plans. It may not come as a surprise to you to hear that the research revealed a big difference in results when the pitches were evaluated on paper rather than in person. After all, this is the premise that the TV show The Voice is built on: the selection of singing ability based on the actual singing and not influenced by the visual cues of appearance, manner and physical stature. It is humbling to realise that, however much you think you are objectively assessing a presentation on rational measures, you are subconsciously laying more store on assessing it on various cues, such as how confident the presenter is in their message and the mental focus behind what they are saying. The scary thing is that the researchers developed and applied a digital device, known as a sociometer, to monitor the interaction between presenters and their audience, and it is able to give an accurate prediction of the outcome. Such unconscious and uncontrollable signals (hence termed honest signals) influence critical business activities, such as negotiations, group decision making and project management. It is not difficult to deduce the impact they must have on the application of NDT.

Of course, there is no danger of me giving you honest signals with regard to this missive. This is something that is forgotten in written communication, especially in the use of email. The body language you have, when composing an intended humorous response, is left behind when you press send. You are also not given the opportunity to respond to the immediate feedback of the visual cues of the recipient, when they read what appears to be a terse message. Although they are often composed in a similar manner to speech, emails are written messages and, as such, they should be prepared to ensure that they unambiguously state the message and are read in a manner that aids the correct interpretation. Understanding context and terminology are key to both accurate transmission and reception. Terminology is a constant challenge, especially in NDT, and I have recently been exposed to a whole new vocabulary: BINDT is advertising a seminar on multicopters (Workshop on Multicopters for Inspection, Monday 9 July 2018, Hilton Manchester Deansgate, Manchester); John Moody last month referred to small unmanned aircraft (SUA); and I was already aware of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), widely used for subsea inspection, and of course autonomous vehicles. Each term has a different, particular meaning. I’ll stop there before I get accused of droning on.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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