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.



Body Language: Gestures Are Essential

When seeking body language advice for presentations and television interviews (or sales calls and job interviews, for that matter), the best place to begin is with the work of psycholinguists.

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Wikipedia tells us that psycholinguists study "the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, and understand language." It has been a recognized field for about 50 years.

In her book Hearing Gesture: How our hands help us think, psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that no culture has been discovered in which people do not move their hands as they talk. In other words, if you're reading this, there is an extremely high probability that you gesture in conversation -- even if you're not aware of it.

As Dr. Goldin-Meadow discovered, a person speaking does not even have to be sighted to use gestures. In her book, she describes an experiment in which children and teens blind from birth participated in a series of conversational tasks. All of the children used gestures. "The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group," she writes, "and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms."

Regardless of our culture or language, we all use gestures to help us think and communicate.

Most of us intuitively know that gestures help us communicate. "Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. "The gestures that speakers produce along with their talk are symbolic acts that convey meaning." This is why we get more out of face-to-face meetings than telephone conversations.

But the evidence also indicates that gestures make it easier to think. "When the act of speaking becomes difficult, speakers seem to respond by increasing their gestures," Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. Her hypothesis is that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker's cognitive resources. Attempting to reduce or eliminate gestures (i.e. being told to reduce your gestures by a psycholinguist conducting an experiment or, potentially, by a presentation or media training consultant trying to get you to convey the "right image") adds to your cognitive burden. It makes it more difficult to think of what you're trying to say at times when, during presentations and interviews, you don't need the added pressure.

In other words, if you want to increase your ability to think on your feet during presentations, or in your seat during television interviews, bring your gestures with you and let them happen naturally.

Or, as Dr. Goldin-Meadow was quoted as saying on page 14 of the November 25, 2003, edition of the
Chicago Sun-Times:

"At the very least, we ought to stop telling people not to move their hands when they talk."

Non-Verbal Communication Not Really Communication

On a recent LinkedIn discussion, I stated my belief that we really only have two methods of communication as human beings: the spoken word (the communication tradition of orality) and the written word (the communication tradition of literacy).

Every medium of communication we’ve ever had—or ever will have—can be divided into one of those two categories.

Tablets from the mount or Dead Sea scrolls? Literacy. Sermon from the mount or stories around the campfire? Orality.

Newspapers and magazines? Literacy. Radio and television? Orality. Blogs, online discussion groups, Facebook and Twitter? Literacy. Podcasts and YouTube? Orality. E-mail or text to a friend? Literacy. Conversation with that same friend via Skype or over dinner? Orality.

Whether we’re trying to inform, persuade, reminisce or share a tender moment, we either say it or write it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When I posted this, someone asked: “What about non-verbal communication? Don’t you think this is a separate method of communication?”

Interesting thought. But, honestly, I don’t think so. It’s simply a subset of orality.

Imagine you’re standing with a friend and you want to communicate something. You might be able to communicate basic emotions: joy, sadness, confusion, anger.

But you wouldn’t be able to give your friend directions to the nearest washroom without pointing or gesturing in some way. Once you do that, you’re engaged in sign language, which is simply another form of orality.

In my experience, when someone puts that much faith in non-verbal communication, they have probably fallen prey to
The Mehrabian Myth, which is something I’ve often written about.

Your body language must be natural. You cannot mimic or create gestures. As Mehrabian’s research indicates, when you do that, you’re sending one message: “My words cannot be trusted.”