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Ignore the big myth about nonverbal communication

01 Jun, 2020 Messaging

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

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.” However, these widely quoted figures (181,000 results from a Google search) are just an urban myth and represent a fundamental misinterpretation of limited experimental results.

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 common factoid (a false statement asserted as a fact).

These percentages have been 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. But they have been taken out of context!

Unfortunately, the 7% 38% 55% statements continue to pop up as fact in published works:

  • “Only 7 percent of face-to-face communication is actual words.”
  • “Studies in communication have shown that the verbal aspect – the basic content – only comprises 7% of the total message that we send or another person receives.”
  • “One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.”

Do a Google search for yourself and you can find variations on the same statement in many locations.

How did the myth spring up?

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.

Superficial interpretation – the findings only relate to inconsistent communication

The result only occurred 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.

What’s more

These results:

  1. only relate to an audience that doesn’t know the speaker,
  2. apply in situations in which “the cues are limited to feeling (pleasure, arousal, dominance) and like/dislike,” according to Dr Mehrabian (he only tested 9 words in the original experiment).

Finding out the facts

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.

Sure enough, Mehrabian’s claims were much more modest than the sweeping conclusions 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? Indeed there is. Our experimental results show:

“Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking” [page 76]

“This can also be:

“Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling” [page 77]

“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 a recorded message or phone conversation, if the vocal expression happens to contradict the words, then the former determines the total impact. This can work either way: the words may be positive and the vocal expression negative, or the vocal expression may be positive and the words negative.” [page 76]

“Obviously implicit expressions are not always more important than words,” stated Dr Mehrabian on page 79. Implicit communication deals mainly with feelings and like/dislike or attitudes.

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.

Limitations of the study methodology

In addition to the misinterpretation of results, the experimental studies have limited applicability to real life:

  1. The research was based on a very small sample in an artificial setting.
  2. The figures were obtained by combining inappropriate results from two different studies.
  3. The studies related only to the communication of positive versus negative emotions.
  4. The studies related only to women, as men did not participate in the study.
  5. Other types of nonverbal communication, such as body posture, were not included in the studies.

Reference

Albert Mehrabian. Silent Messages.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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