The importance of non-verbal communication — The myth and the truth.
"7% of your message is communicated through your words, 38% percent through your tone of voice and 55% through your body language.”
You may have heard or read this because the “7-38-55% Rule" is referred to in countless courses, books and articles and it is attributed to Albert Mehrabian.
If you take a second and reflect on it, it’s stunning how little importance our words carry compared to how much body language does, isn’t it?
Except that it’s not true.
While body language is powerful and important, most people referring to the “7-38-55% Rule” unfortunately take it out of context.
What Albert Mehrabian’s research actually showed is that we weigh our interlocutor's body language and tone of voice, i.e. non-verbal communication, much higher then their words in interpreting their message when they talk about feelings and attitudes and when there is an incongruence between their verbal and non-verbal message.
Now, this immediately shows the "7-38-55%" in a different light. What it means is that if someone says “Splendid!” while making a disappointed face and saying it with an unenthusiastic tone of voice, we will give more importance to the voice and the body language than to the words and thus understand the sarcasm.
That’s what Mehrabian’s experiment actually proves. Not that in general we decide what others mean 93% (38%+55%) based on non-verbal and only 7% based on verbal message.
To see an animated explanation of why the mis-contextualised version of the Mehrabian experiment makes no sense, watch this short video:
The sad thing is that a minimum amount of research into Albert Mehrabian’s experiment shows that the above numbers don’t apply to communication in general, which is how they are often mis-contextualised, but to very specific situations. However, in today’s world it seems that too few people take the time and make the effort to conduct even a minimum amount of research on the validity of data if the numbers support their agenda. And once people read something in a book or article, they take it for granted and spread it further.
But a more important question is what putting the “7-38-55% Rule" into the right perspective means for public speaking?
It means that while non-verbal communication on stage is undoubtedly very important, verbal communication is more important than people who regurgitate the mis-contextualised “7-38-55% Rule” try to make you believe.
It also means that good body language alone won’t make for a good presentation.
Body language is primarily meant to support your storytelling, which is the basis of every presentation. Other functions of body language are to build trust and connection with your audience and help you show confidence. These are important because we do not buy into people’s ideas who we do not trust and connect with. Also, if we do not see that a speaker is confident about their content and message, then we are less likely to believe in what they share with us.
How can you use body language to support your message, build trust and connection and radiate confidence? That’s coming up in future articles. (There is a cliffhanger for you.)
The most important message of this one is: think critically about information before you take it for granted. Some of what is out there is just regurgutated myths. And hearing them repeatedly shouldn’t make them true.