Debunking the myths of non-verbal communication

93 Percent?93% of communication is non-verbal. Everyone knows that.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard this in sales training sessions or read it in books, articles and blogs. Sometimes the stats are qualified further, for example:

  • “One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.”

The trouble is – it’s not true.

Let’s think about it for a minute – how can you possibly get 93% of the communication without the words? If you watch a foreign-language film, and watch the body language and listen to the vocal tones – can you really understand 93% of it? I certainly can’t.

The truth is that the experiments at the source of this myth (carried out by researcher Albert Mehrabian in the 70’s) were focused on some very specific areas of communication – namely the communication of feelings and attitudes – not communication in general.

As Mehrabian himself points out:

“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”

In addition, the construction of the experiments was not an accurate reflection of real-world communication conditions. In one of the central experiments, for example, participants were read out single words (either positive words like “thanks”, neutral like “maybe” or negative like “don’t”) in either positive, negative or neutral voices. In another, the words were combined with photographs of people looking positive, negative or neutral.

Participants had to judge whether the words were positive, negative or neutral based on the combined word/tone or word/picture combinations – which is where the statistics came from. It highlighted how the tone of voice or the facial expression often overrode the meaning of the word when it came to conveying a positive or negative feeling.

Of course, in the real world, we typically don’t communicate in single words. And we’re typically not just trying to communicate feelings either. But what has happened is that these important – but limited – findings from the experiments have been taken out of context, repeated, misunderstood, repeated, confused, etc. – up to the point where “93% of communication is non-verbal” has become accepted as reality.

So what does this mean for sales people?

Well, there’s no doubting that non-verbal communication is important – but don’t take the 93% rule too seriously. The words you use really are vitally important – they’re the core of your communication.

Your non-verbals serve mainly to support what you’re saying by conveying your feelings – your passion, your empathy, your truthfulness. How do you make sure your non-verbals provide the right support?

Well, critically – don’t fake it. Despite what some trainers may try to convince you of, it really is almost impossible to try to “technique” your way through body-language. Non-verbal communication is so complex – too complex to try to act out or replicate – yet most people are really good at reading it, so they will pick up any fakery very quickly. Instead – make sure you really believe in what you are saying – and the correct non-verbal communication will follow naturally.

And of course, if you find yourself on a training course, or reading an article, and you read the phrase “93% of communication is non-verbal” – then think twice about the credibility of the trainer or author. They haven’t done their homework properly on this – so what else have they skimped on?

Onward!

Ian

Postcript: Further thoughts on this myth

Enjoyed This Blog Post? Get Free Updates And More...

Get my very best tips and strategies to help you attract and win more clients. Sign up below. Get Free Instant Access »
   

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks Ricci

    I’ve had a bug-bear about this for years, and I finally couldn’t resist having a rant!

    Not that I don’t think non-verbal communication isn’t important – it’s just I hate sloppy thinking and mindless acceptance of accepted dogma!

    Ian

  2. says

    Ian,

    Thanks for such a succinct summation (easily found by web searching too!)

    I agree this figure bears out closer examination.

    I’d add one minor point to how you make your point. I think if you are watching skilled actors, and are yourself able to watch people (rather than relying more on the content of the words spoken in a film) it is possible to understand much of what is going on in a film or play spoken in another language (sometimes even 93%)

    I had an acting teacher who disliked Shakespeare until he saw Hamlet performed in Hungarian – and understood its essence.

    But…it does depend. Some people are much more skilled at picking up non-verbal cues, facial expressions. I suspect (but have no evidence) that children may have an innate ability to do this before they learn to read and learn to give primacy to the content/what they are told, rather than direct observation of the world.

    Again, thank you for your blog.

  3. says

    Thanks for your kind words Rachel,

    I think when your acting teacher saw the “essence” of the play they were probably picking up the emotional component. I bet they couldn’t pick up the names of the protagonists, the intricacies of the plot, or any of Shakespeare’s word-play. But I think by your later comment that you’d agree. The concept of “percentage” doesn’t adequately convey what is transferred in a communication.

    Ian

  4. sangos says

    The 93% maxim holds water for only emotions and not data (we CAN understand the emotions in a foreign film; if its p**n, then certainly-pun intended!). Human communication is still very emotional and in spite of today’s cold data driven internet, we invented emoticons as a workaround! And that is why the 93% maxim is so overwhelming in this scenario. Case in point would be the mating ritual of let’s say humans – allegedly the only animal to use data. The whole process of sexual attraction heavily uses non verbal communication, because it’s a very emotion based phenomenon. The mere sight of a very hot woman triggers complex emotional responses in men. And the sight and sound of a very confident man triggers comparative emotions in women. This is just a small sample of the larger complex mix of emotions, communication and interpretation in this situation. A point of interest would be in the case of a man, it also includes sound. Now here it means voice tone rather than the content of speech. No wonder a deep baritone is universally desired! Since us humans are hard wired to be much more responsive to emotions than data, especially while communicating: the 93% maxim is very true.

    Btw saw some alien movie where those guys neither use verbal/non verbal communication but guess what…telepathy!!? Can’t imagine what it would be like to have all your stuff floating in the air for anybody to pick-up!!! Would have to make a very genuinely honest sales pitch definitely.

  5. Miranda Bennett says

    Thanks for the interesting and informative post. I’m a librarian and recently attended a communication workshop, where the 93% statistic was trotted out with no caveats or context. I came across your blog while trying to track down its source. I’ve now read Mehrabian’s 1968 “Psychology Today” article and am beginning to understand what the statistic was intended to mean.

    I really like your foreign film analogy because it illustrates Mehrabian’s argument nicely. If I watch a film without understanding the language, I could probably figure out with a fair degree of accuracy–perhaps even 93%!–that Character X likes Character Y or that Character Z’s social status is lower than Character A’s or that Character R is really, really angry, but I certainly couldn’t summarize the content of the dialogue or recap the plot.

    I’ve subscribed to your blog and hope you’ll keep up the debunking!

  6. Joseph Robertshaw says

    So how about a more accurate number? While Mehrabian seems to be referring to believabillity if the messages are inconsistant (ergo the body and vocal cues are believed at a 93:7 ratio over verbal content) which can help listeners derrive truthfulness judgements, where are the real numbers about the communicators average channel bandwidth. That is what we are looking for when we misinterpret and misquote the 55/33/7 distribution figures. Do any real numbers exist?

  7. Cordell says

    I used to present material with this story in it, I did my research & while I couldn’t change the slides (not owned by me or my organisation), I could explain what you have explained above. Nice to see I’m not the only one!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>