There was a time when speech was considered the foremost expression of creativity. To classical scholarship, spoken or written symbols — we know as language — presented the only means for transmitting abstract intelligence onto the physical plane.
The ability to condense, codify and communicate a complex idea, an ineffable emotion or a flash of imagination to others for an enhanced understanding or appreciation was considered the hallmark of an accomplished mind. In fact, all of human progress was claimed to be the handiwork of imagination employing linguistic or mathematical signs to change the shape of physical reality.
It is for this reason that in the classical view the mastery of thought through command over the language and the expression of it in proper diction and grammar was considered indispensable. As speech could work on the power of comprehension and imagination itself, it was believed that words were sacrosanct and should remain pure, precise and exalted — never base, coarse or vulgar.
Thus, the importance of verbal communication was never lost on prospective leaders, who were trained in the art of rhetoric and in the sophistry of eloquence. The leader’s gift was not only to better diagnose and find solutions to a problem, but to also have the facility of expression to better communicate the intended command to the audience in a cogent and understandable manner.
There is more to the ability of leaders to connect and communicate their message to their people than the supposed proficiency in languageDr. Adil Rasheed
A paradigm shift
There is nothing fundamentally wrong about the above premise over the importance of verbal messaging in any communication. However, the idea of communication in modern times has undergone a paradigm shift. History has shown many leaders to be singularly deficient in the proverbial gift of the gab.
It is said Napoleon Bonaparte spoke bad French, Richard Cour de Lion struggled with his English and the usually shy Mahatma Gandhi could hardly speak up. Clearly, there was something more to these leaders’ ability to connect and to communicate their message effectively to their people than the supposed proficiency in language.
These leaders were great because they became iconic representation of their message. Thus, Mahatma Gandhi became an embodiment of what he called ‘Be the Change’, exuding a persona at once true and at peace with itself that gelled with his message of simplicity, truth and non-violence. Napoleon’s commanding and imperial demeanor exuded qualities of valor and ambition that was in sync with the revolutionary temper of his times.
In fact, the importance of non-verbal communications was only understood in the 1960s, when psychologist Albert Mehrabrain came out with his research thesis “Communication without Words”. Mehrabian had studied thousands of salespersons and found that their likeability and trustworthiness among customers was determined more by their body language and the way they dressed than by their verbal persuasiveness.
The 7-38-55 theory
His research later gave us the famous “7-38-55 theory” on communications, which found out that verbal communication only accounts for 7 percent of any communication, whereas voice tonality accounts for 38 percent and body language/physical appearance plays 55 percent impact on the strength of a message.
Even today, his theory stands true. In fact, an intellectually strong and convincing argument could be rejected by an audience simply because the tone of the voice may sound harsh (thereby smacking of arrogance) or too meek (lacking in conviction). Similarly, shifty eyes or a slouch may introduce deviousness into an otherwise sincere message.
In the last US presidential elections, people felt Donald Trump was more candid and upfront with his audience even though he espoused a more radical message, while Hillary Clinton’s high chin and imperious gestures gave the impression of high-brow disconnectedness that did resonate with her left-leaning, working class voter base.
Among the various other aspects of non-verbal communication come the steadfastness of gaze, the use of space while making a presentation, the hand gestures, the pace of the speech, the alacrity and presence of mind, the manners and the smartness, the pause and the poise.
Thus in today’s world of mass visual communications the appeal of a leader is not restricted to the mere strength or limitation of his or her intellectual argument, but to the level of trust and confidence the leader is able to generate among the people. The charisma, the gravitas and the feeling of admiration he or she is able to evoke by the sheer virtue of his or own presence says more than meets the ear.
Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).