The Mehrabian Myth

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When it comes to the use of body language in presentations and broadcast interviews, most of us have seen a statistic that seems to support the notion that:

  • 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.
If we take these numbers at face value, they seem to imply that 93 per cent of communication is non-verbal. It isn’t. If it was, we’d be able to watch a foreign movie without subtitles. By simply observing how two actors converse, we’d be able to listen to how the words sound, watch the actors' gestures and get 93 percent of what transpires.

However, we all know that this is not the case. We 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 mis-stated bears little resemblance to what Professor Mehrabian originally intended.

Mehrabian was examining trust in communication. He would have someone say “no” but nod “yes,” for example. If there is a disconnect between words and gestures, which does the receiver of information rely on to determine trust in the message.

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
From his research, Professor Mehrabian's assertion is that words, voice and body language must be consistent with each other. If there is an inconsistency between what’s said and how the person looked saying it, the receiver of the message relies on more than the words spoken to get the overall message.

Mehrabian’s outcome is clear. If you attempt 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 per cent), 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 effective presentations and/or broadcast interviews. You certainly want to be on your best behaviour, but if you use gestures when you're engaged in a telephone conversation (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.


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