The Myth of Non-Verbal Communications
You must have heard it before, no doubt.
“So much of what you communicate is non-verbal.”
“It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it”
If you’ve ever been coached or trained in public speaking, it’s likely that a statistic was thrown at you to support the above claim. A statistic that seemed to be pointing to an underlying truth, but rather unbelievable if taken literally.
The Typical Paraphrasing of Mehrabian goes like this:
“55 % of what you communicate is body language
38% is your tone (manner of speaking)
only 7% is your words”
A Typical Misquote
This is not accurate.
The often cited above statistic, is the so-called Mehrabian Rule, named after Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles who published his findings in the early 1970s.
It is one of the most misquoted and misinterpreted findings in the history of modern human communications academia.
In this article, I will try to guess why that is, offer a simple way to explain the rule without distorting it, and layout why the undistorted rule remains important.
Why So Misquoted?
So, why is it the most commonly and casually misquoted study?
Obviously, the causally paraphrased rule is used to emphasise the importance of the speaker’s delivery and the need for rehearsal and practice.
It is very tempting to use the Mehrabian rule in this way because people so often underestimate the preparation work required to deliver a presentation. People too often focus on the content and devote little time to preparing the delivery of that content.
Throughout schooling, university and much of our professional careers we have been overwhelmingly trained and conditioned to communicate in writing. Rarely does one receive formal training to develop oratory skills.
Consequently, people tend to underestimate the delivery side of their preparation. By way of habit, they tend to seek reassurance by focusing on producing a really well written text.
Trainers use this distorted paraphrasing of the Mehrabian rule as a kind of scarecrow to get people to commit to the often-neglected aspects of their preparations, the non-verbal part.
A Faithful Version of the Rule
Here is how I like to explain the rule.
“When you are sharing your feelings about or attitudes towards a topic, 55% of the audience will not be persuaded to adopt your views if your body language doesn’t match the feeling or attitude you are purporting to share.
In the case of tone of voice, it’s 33% of the audience.”
If I were to distil it further, I’d say:
If you share an opinion, be sincere, otherwise you’ll turn off your audience.
Scope of Application
So, the Albert Mehrabian rule only applies under two conditions:
When dealing with feelings and attitudes towards a subject. Therefore, it does not apply if you are explaining, informing, or training on factual, technical and dispassionate matters.
When there is incongruence between your words and either your voice or body Language (or both).
Once misquoted, necessarily misunderstood.
If we use the distorted version of the rule, it can be understood that 93% of your message gets lost in the ether and only 7% is received. When, in fact 100% of your message is received, it’s just that you’ll have a low success rate with the parts of your presentation that aim to persuade about your subjective feelings and attitudes.
Alternatively, it could be misunderstood to mean that 93% of your talk is judged by how you deliver it. Consequently 93% of your time & effort should be devoted to mastering your body language and voice.
- Hold on! That’s crazy talk.
That’s not the case for all talks, nor for every part of a talk. In other words, plenty of presentations can be merely informative without being a stump speech.
Other talks can be persuasive by appealing to logic, citing studies, showing photos, etc. You can demonstrate and convince through facts and evidence.
Also, it may be the case that your tone of voice and body language are fine, but that your visuals need work or the clarity of your message needs refining. Hence, don’t get paranoid and spend all your focus on the non-verbal, like a misquoted Mehrabian rule would suggest.
Is Mehrabian still important?
So if it applies so very narrowly is the Mehrabian rule still important?
- OK. Why?
- Two Reasons:
You must stake a position.
When you are invited to speak, presumably you are invited to share something of value on stage. If you want to retain an audience’s attention and gain their respect, don’t just share your expert knowledge like a laundry list. Don’t simply summaries the best state of current knowledge on a subject. Don’t limit yourself to an informative session. In the end the audience will only want to know one thing from you. They’ll want to know what you really think.
You can explain and inform your audience to some length, yes indeed. You can bring them up to speed. You can appeal to reason and logic. But in a great talk, an inspiring talk, an entertaining talk a persuasive talk you must interpret the available knowledge, stake out your own subjective position on the matter, hence share your “attitudes and feelings” towards the topic.
If you are expressing your own sentiments sincerely, this will trigger other people’s emotions. Triggering emotion makes your message and your performance more memorable. What is the point if delivering a message if no one remembers it the next day? The stronger your feelings about a topic the more memorable.
You must be authentic
Presumably you are not a professional actor. You don’t have the trained skills to feign your feelings and emotions. The point of the Mehrabian rule is: if you fake it, people will sense it and tune out.
Being authentic works best. It requires you to interpret the knowledge you are sharing and that you have the courage to say what you really think, NOT what you figure is appropriate for you to say, or what is expected of you to say.
Basically: avoiding platitudes.
If you are teaching this rule to a public speaking coachee, it is important to explain the rule properly and faithfully for it to have more impact. They will understand why they should be investing time rehearsing, recording and getting feedback on their delivery.