If I hear the overused-but-never-fully-explained statistic that claims words account for only seven percent of communication’s effectiveness (nonverbal making up the other 93%?), I’m going to toss my computer out the window. It’s the most commonly and universally accepted “truth” about the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal communication and …
… it’s absurd, inaccurate, and dangerous.
Just recently, I heard this rarely uncontested, communication commandment quoted three times in a week – at work with a client, while judging a high school speech tournament, and in a sermon at church. These were all from varied speakers in different contexts for different purposes, yet they all assumed this time-honored truism was … actually true.
Come on, it’s utter nonsense to believe that the actual words, ideas, and other essential literal/verbal elements of communication have such little influence – 1/14th – on the listener’s understanding of a message. And that’s not just because I’m a word junkie and believe wholeheartedly in their power and effectiveness.
Where did this longstanding principle come from and why have we so readily accepted it?
In the mid-1960s, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles conducted research into human communication patterns, particularly verbal versus non-verbal content, specifically incongruent communication. Their research was documented in two 1967 papers, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications,” and “Inference of Attitude from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels.” Their primary objective of these experiments was to judge the feelings of a speaker by listening to live or recorded single words spoken in different tones of voice and with visual reinforcement.
I know, I know. I’m like you; I’m already seeing some red flags. 1967? “Inconsistent communications?” Single words? “Feelings of a speaker?” Let’s get a little deeper into the details of the research and see how Mehrabian arrived at his landmark conclusions.
In the first of two studies, subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a woman’s voice saying the word “maybe” three different ways to convey the “liking,” “neutrality,” and “disliking” of a communicated message. They were also shown photos of the woman’s face conveying the same three emotions and then asked to guess the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together, assessing a “positive, negative, or neutral attribute” toward the speaker.
This study focused on verbal communication versus non-verbal (tone and facial expressions), using single words and with an emphasis on the liking or disliking of the speaker. Thirty subjects participated.
In the second study, subjects were asked to listen to a woman recite nine recorded words: three meant to convey liking (“honey,” “dear,” “thanks”), three to convey neutrality (“maybe,” “really,” “oh”), and three to convey disliking (“don’t,” “brute,” “terrible”). Each word was pronounced in three different ways. The subjects were asked to rate the feelings of the speaker.
The objective of this study was to see how much weight each of the elements had—words (verbal), voice (nonverbal), and face (nonverbal)and how influenced listeners were by the tone of voice compared to the words themselves.
Professor Mehrabian compiled the statistical results of the two studies and came up with the now famously acknowledged—and infamously misused—“rule” that effective communication is determined primarily through seven percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal means. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent) leaving only seven percent for the actual spoken word.
The findings were published in academic journals in 1967 and were widely circulated across mass media. Because people probably only scanned the research results—the headline—and didn’t take the time to dig deeper into the details—the methodology and mode—they glossed over the specifics of the studies—the meaning—and the seven percent myth was born. And the rest is … hysteria.
The truth, as you can easily gather, is that these sweeping claims can’t possibly be concluded from such a narrow, specific set of inconclusive studies. In fact, knowing people might misinterpret his findings, Mehrabian himself states on his own website regarding his research: “Please note that this and other equations regarding the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e. like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”
In a personal October 2002 email to Max Atkinson, reproduced in his book, “Lend Me Your Ears,” Mehrabian stated: “I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning, I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately, the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.”
And in 2009, BBC reporter Tim Harford asked Dr. Mehrabian “whether 93% of communication is nonverbal?” He answered, “Absolutely not. And whenever I hear that misquote of my findings I cringe because it should be obvious to anybody who would use any amount of common sense that that’s not a correct statement!”
“Misquote of my findings,” “obvious to anybody who would use any amount of common sense,” “that’s not a correct statement.” Now that message is pretty clear, and from the author of the study himself.
Even the most casual skeptic can point out immediate and glaring problematic issues concerning the tests themselves and methodologies used. Consider these areas of concern:
- The studies only used one-word exchanges, not full conversations or speeches.
- The tests were aimed at communication with inconsistent tones versus words.
- The research focused primarily on the audience feelings toward the speaker.
- The test communication featured artificial situations with no context.
- The purpose of the experiment was disclosed to the participants.
- Nonverbal communication was defined only as facial expression.
- The compared studies contain different aspects and objectives.
- Mehrabian never intended the results to apply to normal conversations.
As public speaking consultant and communication expert, Olivia Mitchell, aptly concluded, “So if we limit the formula to the specific conditions of the experiments, it is only applicable if:
- a speaker is using only one word,
- their tone of voice is inconsistent with the meaning of the word, and
- the judgement being made is about the feelings of the speaker.”
“In other words,” she concluded, “in the real world, Mehrabian’s formula is almost never applicable.”
And yet we’ve largely turned the importance and emphasis of verbal/non-verbal communications on its head because of these two studies, which don’t come near proving what others so quickly conclude to be a proven fact.
So why all the fuss—besides the fact that these limited, inconclusive studies have been given such monumental weight for all these years? Because the message matters. The purpose and reason for communicating—to use words and ideas to transfer truths and emotions to others—are what matters in our interactions. This specific word over that. With this precise meaning instead of that one. Words are specific and crucial. In a day and age when the massive amount of words and noise around them is at an all-time high, it’s important that we communicate exactly what we mean and people hear exactly what we’re saying.
And though non-verbal aspects of communication are an important part of our overall message, they primarily serve to enhance and accentuate, not overpower and overshadow our intended message. Voice, tone, pace, eye contact, body movement: these are all nice tools in helping to get our message across, but they aren’t more important or influential than the actual words we choose. There is a tendency in today’s unrelenting online assault on the average reader that sizzle sells and presentation coopts message, but I believe in the final analysis people want to eat the steak, not just see or smell its attractiveness.
Another culprit in this data-driven world of mass amounts of mass media is the fact that just about nothing is vetted these days: “truths” aren’t tested to see if they’re actually true. If something ranks high in a Google search, it must be true. Where is the discrimination, the common-sense skepticism to believe anything put in front of us, the healthy filter that questions what seems to be pretty far-fetched—like a 50-year-old study that some conclude to prove vocal tone is 14 times more important than the actual words used in conversation?
So what’s the point of my bashing a time-honored communications belief? Here are some common-sense conclusions I think will benefit you:
- Words are crucial in our communications. Use them wisely. They are not only the building blocks, they are the mind, body, and soul of our interactions. Stop and think which ones you use—and which you don’t. Use them thoughtfully, purposefully, and judiciously. Work hard at delivering and listening to their truest meaning.
- Non-verbal tools can greatly enhance but aren’t the focus of our communication. Just like any other artist, there are skills that can be used to add texture, dimension, and weight to one’s work. But they aren’t the work itself and shouldn’t be used solely to get your message across. Voice inflection and facial expression can add a lot to a message but those aren’t the reasons you’re delivering your message. It’s the blending of message with method that produces the greatest result.
- Do your research, be healthily skeptical, and don’t believe everything you read. Test the facts you use. Check your sources. Use a full range of corroborating, support material when you form an opinion. The chances that a narrow, inconclusive bit of research could be true without any other support is highly unlikely—like that only seven percent of communication’s effectiveness is due to the words used.
Communication is one of the most powerful tools we have in our interactions with others. Make sure you’re always mastering your ability to become as adept and effective in every aspect of it, especially the words you choose. Master the non-verbal tools at your disposal to enhance your message, not make it. And be suspicious of what you hear and read, putting it through a rigorous test to check its validity and authenticity.
If you do, you’ll make sure the messages you intend to get across reach their audiences with clarity and effectiveness.
Jim Ramsbottom is ThinkWell's writer-in-residence. When he's not authoring blogs (for clients or himself), white papers, animation scripts, website copy, or marketing content, you can find him writing screenplays or re-watching “Breaking Bad.” He’s an ardent of the Hopi proverb: “He who tells the stories rules the world.”