The Mehrabian Myth

When it comes to the use of body language in presentations and broadcast interviews, most of us have seen some sort of statistic that indicates:
  • 55% of the overall message is how the person looks when delivering the message.
  • 38% of the overall message is how the person sounds when delivering the message.
  • 7% of the overall message can be attributed to the words the person uses.
If you take these numbers and explanations at face value, they seem to imply that you can watch a foreign movie without subtitles. By simply observing how two actors converse, you can listen to how the words sound, watch the actors’ gestures and get 93 percent of the message.
Cover of the book Silent Messages by Albert Mehrabian

However, this is not the case. You will recognize emotion, but if you don’t understand what is said, you comprehend significantly less than 93 percent of what transpires between the actors.

The numbers 55, 38 and 7 first appear in a 1971 book entitled Silent Messages, written by Albert Mehrabian and based on his research at Stanford University. But the way these numbers are now commonly misused bears little resemblance to what Professor Mehrabian originally intended.

Mehrabian uses two equations (on pages 44 and 45) to describe the results of one section of his research, in a chapter titled “The Double-Edged Message”:

Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking
Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling
The bottom line is Professor Mehrabian’s assertion that words, voice and body language must be consistent with each other. If the receiver of information senses an inconsistency, he or she relies on more than the words spoken to get the overall message.

In other words, if you use body language to be someone other than who you are in a presentation or broadcast interview (i.e. by trying to create the right image to get as much as possible out of the 55%), the audience will sense this inconsistency and will be less likely to believe what you’re saying. As Mehrabian writes, “when actions contradict words, people rely more heavily on actions to infer another’s feelings.”

This emphasizes the importance of “be yourself” as a fundamental principle of presentations and/or broadcast interviews. You certainly want to be on your best behavior; there are certain parts of your anatomy you should not scratch or pick at when delivering a presentation or during a TV interview.

Quite frankly, if you use gestures when you’re engaged in a conversation on the telephone (and virtually all of us do), you should bring those gestures to your presentations and broadcast interviews. Let them happen naturally. They are an integral component of who you are as a human being, and therefore fundamental to the concept of “be yourself.”

Using gestures naturally is the best possible way to ensure consistency between the words spoken, how they sound when they’re spoken and how you look when they’re spoken. In that scenario, total liking and total feeling will be as close to 100 percent as possible.

And your effectiveness at influencing others will be enhanced.

More Mehrabian Myth

I received an e-mail from Martin Shovel at Creativity Works recently with a link to the YouTube video I’ve posted below. It’s an interesting animated take on the Mehrabian Myth, which is something I’ve written here about a number of times, and something I almost always discuss during my presentation skills and media training workshops.

As I learn more about face-to-face communication, my faith in a balance of message and personality is constantly reinforced.

We need to achieve two goals whenever we communicate face-to-face. We need to convey our message; we need to convey our personality. Each of us achieves those two goals every day of our lives in relaxed conversation, which makes relaxed conversation our best possible communication style.

In a business presentation, this doesn’t mean you should be unprepared. You should set objectives for the outcomes you would like to achieve. You should have a structure. You should use notes to keep yourself on track and on time.

But you should always have a conversation that is as interactive, two-way and receiver-driven as you can make it. Be sincere and honest. Minimize your PowerPoint (if you use it at all). Encourage and answer questions throughout your presentations, especially with smaller groups of up to 50 participants.

Focus less on your “performance” and more on helping the audience understand, and your effectiveness will increase accordingly.