There’s this myth “out there” that body language is more important than your words in conveying a message. I recently heard this myth reinforced by a speech pathologist and public speaking coach, who proclaimed on a podcast available through her website that there is a “well-known statistic out there by [sic] behavioural psychologist Dr. Mehrabian” regarding information presented to groups.
She then went on to state that Dr. Mehrabian had found that delivery and body language follow the rule of 55% of communication of meaning being visual, 38% being determined by the tone and delivery and only 7% by the words themselves.
That would be fascinating and extremely useful – if any of it were true. What is wrong with the contention that this coach and many others make that Mehrabian discovered that it’s not what you say, but how you say it that is most important?
- Dr. Albert Mehrabian never studied people speaking to groups in a public speaking/presenting situation, as the references to his work suggest. Mehrabian studied people who were mostly not conversing but a) listening to single isolated words in a lab setting, in order to discriminate positive or negative emotions, and b) examination in a lab setting of black and white photographs accompanied by tape recordings in order to determine contributions of differing communication inputs. Neither of these situations is generalizable to conversations, public speaking or presenting or any other host of real-world situations.
- Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 formula was based on combining the results – at a guess – of the two studies just mentioned. That is not a finding, not a statistic, but a postulation. There never was any proof.
Undoubtedly tone, intonation, dynamics, body language and facial expression all send a message that influences the interpretation of our language. But to contend that it is the primary means of communication is illegitimate – just ask my daughter’s speech therapist. My youngest daughter communicates primarily through limited gestures, indistinct sounds and facial expression. And it is extremely difficult to understand her without words! When she uses the few at her command, it is the difference between night and day.
Why do people continue to perpetuate this myth? Perhaps it’s a lack of understanding of how research is generated and conducted. Perhaps it is a case of merely accepting the prevailing point of view. Or perhaps it is easier to focus on these other behaviours – it’s not as difficult or demanding as generating ideas, refining them, considering word choice for your audience and speaking in a way that combines intellect with passion and emotion in a coherent and persuasive manner. Some coaches and speakers often seem to thrive instead on “Say it louder” and “Put your hands here”, rather than the deeper meaning and connection you have with your audience. That’s why we have such a paucity of authentic, powerful speakers in the public arena.
“Perhaps it is easier to focus on these other behaviours – it’s not as difficult or demanding as generating ideas, refining them, considering word choice for your audience and speaking in a way that combines intellect with passion and emotion in a coherent and persuasive manner.”
There’s a very simple way to test this body language myth: try acting out Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the words. Surely you can get 93% of the meaning across without all that wordy stuff?! (Need I be more facetious?)
Mehrabian himself decries the misuse of his studies by people who have misconstrued his findings and theories. (You can visit his website at www.kaaj.com/psych for some basic comments.) He points out that his studies were concerned very specifically with like and dislike, varieties of attitudes, not core meaning. In other words, the nuances can be affected and sometimes contrary body language and facial expressions can convey an outright contradiction to the words. Thus, pulling a sad face while speaking happy words may mean that I am being ironic, sarcastic or conflicted.
You may have equally seen Hamlet performed by an actor using different tone and posture and thus making you think of the meaning slightly differently than you had before. But Shakespeare also deliberately wrote with some ambiguity of meaning. The actors’ cues, their relationship in space, their actions on stage all help the audience to understand the director’s take on the meaning. However, the non-verbal communication cannot replace the language itself, except to a very limited extent. And this is what Mehrabian found: when there is ambiguity or lack of context, the non-verbal aspects contribute significantly to our perception of attitude, deception and inconsistency.
Be careful of coaches who say that if you have just the right combination of body language and dynamics that you will magically transform your audience’s responses – the quality of your ideas, character and integrity will count for far more. There are plenty of glib, good-looking political candidates in the US election campaigns with all the “right” body language, but none of the substance. The old phrase, “Your actions speak louder than words” is true. But your words should also strive to reflect your good actions.
Instead of focusing on all the externals: where you stand, how you are oriented, what your face is doing, focus first on the internals – your ideas and proofs; your motivations, values and goals; language that denotes, connotes and emotes; meaning-rich language that connects with your audience. Then you can deliver it in a way that reinforces, but does not replace, your message.
- Peter J. McLean