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The big myth about nonverbal communication
By Kim Harrison,
Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com
You have probably heard this type of statement: “Effective personal communication is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and only 7% content of the words you use.” This is an actual quote from a website.
These percentages are used over and over by communication consultants, body language ‘experts,’ media interview trainers, speech delivery coaches and HR instructors. How comforting it must be for them to quote such exact and scientific figures when this type of information is usually quite general or occurs in the narrow confines of an experiment.
Unfortunately, the figures are just an urban myth. For example, when you think about it, the words in personal communication logically should carry much more weight than a mere 7%. But this formula has been twisted and distorted, and has become a factoid, which is a false statement asserted as a fact.
Regrettably, the 7% 38% 55% statements continue to pop up in published works:
Do a Google search and you can find variations on the same statement in many locations.
So, what is the truth?
The two original research projects on which this information is based, actually found something decidedly different. UCLA psychologist, Dr Albert Mehrabian, and fellow researchers came up with quite narrow and limited findings, as many research projects do, in their experiments going back to 1967.
The findings only relate to inconsistent communication - where contradictory messages are being conveyed simultaneously by words and other behaviors of a speaker. We may express something verbally while our facial expressions, postures and positions, tone of voice or gestures indicate the opposite.
Further, the findings:
As a communicator by profession I was determined to find out what the facts were, and so I went to the trouble of buying Mehrabian’s book, Silent Messages, directly from him. 1
Sure enough, Mehrabian’s claims were much more modest than the sweeping conclusions many others have drawn from his work.
He said, “Is there a systematic and coherent approach to resolving the general meaning or impact of an inconsistent message? [my emphasis] Indeed there is. Our experimental results show:
“These assertions...are limited to feelings (pleasure, arousal, dominance) and like-dislike.” [page 79]
But “Numerical values in this equation are only approximate.” [page 77] “Implicit cues have about 12 times the power of verbal cues.” [page 78]
In many conversations, implicit messages are not even present, eg “I will meet with you at 2 pm next Wednesday.” However, if you say “I’m looking forward to meeting with you again at 2 pm next Wednesday,” with a pained facial expression or if you avoid looking at the person when saying the words, your expression will convey a stronger implicit message than your explicit message (your words).
From all this, when you hear someone self importantly quoting spurious interpretations of Dr Mehrabian’s work, just laugh in their face. I’m sure your facial expression and tone of voice will be consistent with your words.
About the Author
Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.
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