Tooling Up: Career Success Factors, Part 1Believability

One of the tasks that I love is event planning. For me, there is nothing better than seeing a group of attendees walk away from a function with a recharged attitude and a whole lot of new ideas. However, after a frustrating couple of weeks dealing with loose ends for a recent meeting that I had volunteered to manage, I analyzed what I had earned and was initially disappointed. Purely on a monetary basis, it became clear that I should never leave the recruiting business to become a professional meeting planner.

And yet, speaking events have been one of the high points of my professional life. That’s because I continue to receive the benefit of another form of payment … I’ve had the opportunity to soak up experiences and knowledge from some of the world’s best speakers and trainers on subjects ranging from communication, creativity, or what it takes to succeed as a scientist. O.P.E., or “Other People’s Experiences” as I have often referred to in this column, can be a great advantage in our own career. To listen to and learn from the experiences of respected others … this is a privilege and a talent that we all need to develop.

Over the next three columns, I will present a recap of some of my favorite O.P.E. lessons taught by mentors and friends. Each of these contacts I made by being in the right place at the right time, doing something that earned very little upfront income–but which paid off handsomely down the road.

Little Known Secrets of the Best Communicators

In this first column of the series, I’d like to focus on how different the industrial world is from academia when it comes to communication skills.

For example, let me discuss how you are perceived in industry when doing a “job talk.” Have you done a job talk yet? If not, you will soon. It is one of the most important pieces of the interview process. As a recruiter, I often wondered why it was that some of my best candidates could bomb out in the interview, purely because they had “blown it” in the job talk. These were people who had presented their work to their lab mates in academia without a problem. What was the difference between these two “worlds,” I asked?

The answer came for me when I met Bert Decker. Bert is a consultant on communication skills who has been seen analyzing presidential debates on NBC’s “Today Show” as well as being a frequently quoted expert in The New York Times, Fortune, and other journals. Bert knows the communication process, and I was proud to have had him join me on a speaking panel that I chaired at a scientific conference. The lessons that I learned that day have stuck with me. In fact, I’d say that they jarred me into action.

Bert’s premise, and the idea that he speaks so eloquently about, is that the words in a person’s communication, whether it is a job talk or a keynote address, are much less important to the overall “believability” than you would think. To illustrate this, Bert took the risk of starting out his talk in the usual mode for a speaker. He stood behind the podium, read his prepared notes, and used very little in the way of inflection or passion as he discussed his topic. (Much like my candidate acquaintances who had bombed out on interview day!) After a few minutes of this, the audience sank into a kind of lull, interested in his material but generally matching his low level of energy.

The UCLA Research Project

Twenty-five years ago, Professor Albert Mehrabian of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), conducted a landmark study on the relationships between what he called the “three V’s” of spoken communication. These three are Verbal (the words that you speak–almost as if they were peeled right off the page), Vocal (the way that you say those words–intonation and projection), and Visual (the way you look and act while you are speaking). He published this data in his book Silent Messages.1

Most speakers concentrate on the verbal element, treating the words as if they are the communication. In reality, Dr. Mehrabian’s research proved that most of us have no idea how those on the receiving end make their decisions about our believability. (This term “believability” is used to describe how much we are in harmony with all three elements of communication.)

Take a look at the chart below and guess what the percentages might be, adding them up to 100%. Make a sincere attempt to gauge how important you feel that each element is to the decision that your audience will make about your believability. When you are done, click the link below the graphic for the answer that Dr. Mehrabian of UCLA came up with through his extensive research.

To see Mehrabian’s results, click here

What You Can Do to Improve Your Believability

All of Bert Decker’s work, including his excellent book You Must Be Believed to be Heard,2 focuses on areas of improvement that can dramatically change the way that you are perceived in the Vocal and Visual arenas. I know that many scientists who are reading this column will stop right here, believing that this advice may be more for business people or politicians. However, although your words and your science are indeed critical to the success of your communication, they must be carried along by positive vocal and visual communication techniques. In short, doing great science doesn’t earn you much if you can’t talk about it in a way that will win over your audience.

Here are some of the critical improvements that Bert taught me, and I am sure that they will work for you as well:

– For effective eye contact, count to five. As you know, it is wise when giving a presentation to make visual contact with as many people as you can. However, some speakers are uncomfortable with this and their eyes simply skim over the heads of the audience. As Bert Decker teaches, it is good to remember a count of 5 seconds for eye contact with audience members. It takes that long to transfer your enthusiasm and passion through your eyes.

– Move away from the podium. People who take the “risk” of moving from the shelter of the podium find a great reward when the audience receives them warmly. At a recent investor meeting that I attended, a number of biotech CEO’s presented their technology to venture capitalists and bankers. The man who got the best reception, who looked the most confident in the future of his company, was a speaker who used a wireless lapel mic in full view of the audience.

– Stand tall and remember what your posture says about you. Dr. Mehrabian’s research found that audiences read poor upper body posture (slumping shoulders) as a strong negative. It seems to reflect a low self-esteem, which certainly wouldn’t be a good way to project yourself in an interview. Also, lower body posture can be a problem when the speaker rocks back and forth, or leans back on one hip, as if to say, “I don’t want to be here.”

– Your audience will use your eye contact and energy to determine your likeability. Your gestures and smile, how your eyes connect with your audience … these issues and more are what determine greater than 50% of our believability. As the Gallup Poll shows since the dawn of the television age, it is the candidate’s personality that is the deciding factor in each presidential race. How does the television audience determine this? It is through these same factors.

Developing good communication skills is critical for success, but it can be a lifelong pursuit. I am learning something every day about communication, from my mentors as well as my own experiences and mistakes. In my next column for the “Career Success Factors” series, I will share with you the experiences of another friend, who has distilled a list of the top 10 habits of the world’s leading scientists.


1 Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes (Thomson Learning College, 2nd edition, 1980)

2 Bert Decker, You Must Be Believed to Be Heard (St. Martin’s Press, 1992)

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