Years ago I attended a management course where I was told, “tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of our message, 55 percent is communicated through body language and our words only account for 7 percent of the message”.
Over the years I’ve started to think that this is one of the most misquoted pieces of research ever. I have heard it quoted often. I’ve seen it referred to in books. And in just about every case it is quoted as though it refers to all face-to-face communication.
Thing is, it’s yet another of those pesky myths of communication—the things we believe that are not actually true.
On Mehrabian’s own website he states, “Please note that this and other equations regarding 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.” [My emphasis]
Richard Mullender addresses this myth in the first section of his book The Communication Secrets of a Hostage Negotiator. He suggests an experiment:
“Next time you’re watching a television drama or a movie, try a little experiment. Turn off the sound. Can you follow the story? Do you know what’s going on? Do you understand the relationships between the characters? Now, I’m sure you will have understood some of the show, and if it is part of a series you watch regularly, you probably understood quite a bit. But it most likely wasn’t enough to make you want to continue watching without sound. When you want the full story, you need to hear the words—they count for much more than seven percent.”
Richard then explains:
“Our verbal communication has three components:
- The actual words we use
- Our tone of voice
- Our body language, including facial expressions and gestures
Each is important and each helps us understand the message. But lose any one of them, and it becomes much harder to understand what is really going on. In my opinion lose the words and it becomes virtually impossible.”
So next time you’re talking to someone, it’s probably a good idea not to spend your valuable mental energy trying to work out what their crossed arms, or nose-touching are telling you. Listen carefully and focus on their words instead if you want to get a better idea of their message.