non-verbal communication

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.

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.”