The Mehrabian Myth

Article questions body language assumptions

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.
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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.

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 in Silent Messages (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.

Copyright © Eric Bergman 2004 All Rights Reserved

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Eric Bergman has provided media spokesperson training and presentation skills training to clients from five continents for more than 25 years.

His media training program,
At Ease With the Media, set the standard of excellence in media training since its introduction in the early 1990s. Instead of teaching to parrot key messages, At Ease With the Media empowers spokespeople to strategically manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes.

The skills taught within his presentation skills program,
Present With Ease!, can be adapted to one-on-one conversations and all types of presentations—standing up or sitting down, large groups or small, formal or informal, informative or persuasive, sales presentation or keynote address. His latest presentation skills book, The Engaging Public Participation Presentation, was endorsed by John Sweller, Ph.D., a world-leading expert on how humans learn. Professor Sweller writes:

“The various recommendations Eric Bergman makes are based on strong research evidence he has brilliantly applied to the art of presenting information to a live audience. Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”