Not All Media Trainings Are Evidence-Based

If you are a senior manager or spokesperson of an organization there is a high probability you will have followed a media training session at one time in your career. These trainings are typically conducted by external consultants and will always involve a mix of theory and mock interviews. There is great potential for trainees to learn useful skills through media training sessions, but sadly enough many workshops do not live up to their full potential because they offer learnings that go against science.

A classic example of a concept that media trainers should never have taught executives the way they did is the ‘7-38-55 rule’. You would be hard-pressed to fit into a sports stadium every trainee who has learned that words account for only 7 percent of the impact of spoken communication while voice accounts for 38 percent and body language for no less than 55 percent. 

The problem with the 7-35-88  formula from psychologist Albert Mehrabian is that it has been taken out of context by the people who propagated it, much to the frustration of Mehrabian himself by the way. Mehrabian was only talking about instances where there are conflicts between what is said and non-verbal communication in what a person tells you about their feelings or attitude for you. So the backdrop to the findings of Mehrabian that could have offered the necessary nuance got lost completely. 

Sadly enough, the brouhaha around Mehrabian’s findings made that non-verbal communication fell completely out of grace with some trainers, as if non-verbal communication has completely no impact on how communication is received by audiences.

In an article I collaborated on with the Institute for Public Relations I mentioned next to Mehrabian’s formula also two other examples of popular media training teachings that are in urgent need of reconsideration: the fact that you should never talk in negatives if you want people to understand what you are saying and the misconception that you need to, in all instances, whatever the topic at hand is and whoever the audience you are addressing, repeat a message three times if you want people to process what is said.

Luckily, communicators are not left to their own devices to find out what is evidence-based and what is not. There is an ever-growing body of scientific knowledge available to them, provided through decades of work from researchers in the fields of social psychology and interpersonal communication, among others. Some researchers are even so helpful to summarize the findings of peers so communication professionals are spared browsing through the literature. Aurélie De Waele, An-Sofie Claeys and Michael Opgenhaffen of the University of Leuven went out to discover the ‘best practices’ on message delivery that trainers go to work with and then juxtaposed in this article what they found through interviews and a look into practical handbooks with the research from crisis communications and related fields. 

What they found through their inventory work was that a great many practices that are taught in media training are in fact supported by science. Take the importance of an open body position, erect posture and the avoidance of gaze aversion. These common recommendations are all backed up by academic research. Other popular recommendations are not grounded in academic literature, however. The recommendation from research that smiling during a corporate apology reduces the effectiveness of the apology, I have witnessed trainers instruct their trainees differently. Also, the common wisdom among media trainers that the most abominable response one could ever give to a question is ‘no comment’ is not exactly borne out of academic research. These are just two examples, there are plenty more.

Needless to say, the snapshot of the academic literature provided by the aforementioned authors is really just that, a state of play. The beauty of science is that there is no truth that is set in stone and can not be questioned and – if need be – overruled by subsequent research. But a body of scientific knowledge evolving over time does not make that is it warranted that practitioners take on a relativist viewpoint and shut the door to science because ‘scientific findings change all of the time anyway’. Trainers offer their trainees a better service by aligning their instructions with current science even if that is not the ‘final word’ than continuing to teach what they have always taught because it is simply what they know.


Cover photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash