3 June 2009

Body language and non-verbal communication






This cartoon strip is the briefest summing up I've come across of the absurdity of the overstated claims about the supposedly overwhelming importance of body language and non-verbal communication that circulate so widely in the worlds of presentation skills and management training.

So I was pleased to see that the debate has resurfaced again HERE, as it's something I've been banging on about it for years (see, for example, 'Physical Facts and Fiction', Chapter 11, Lend Me Your Ears) and Step 7 in Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy.

One of the most widely repeated myths asserts that the relative importance of different factors in communication is even more extreme than the 80% referred to in the above cartoon, namely:

Words: 7%
Body language: 38%
Tone of voice: 55%.

But the idea that 93% of communication is non-verbal flies in the face of our common sense experience, and I've never heard any of its advocates address any of the following rather obvious questions:

1. How come it's much easier to have a conversation with a blind person than with someone who's completely deaf?
2. How come we can have perfectly good conversations in the dark?
3. How come telephones and radio have been such spectacular successes?
4. How come we have to work so hard to learn foreign languages?

To these, I would add what I consider to be quite an important lesson from my experience of doing research into political speech-making, which was originally based solely on audio tape recordings. Once video tapes became available, however, none of the audio-based findings had to be rejected or seriously revised, though the added visual dimension did help to extend our understanding and, in some cases, to explain apparently 'deviant' cases.

The same applies more generally to research in the field of conversation analysis, where I know of no examples where audio-based findings had to be rejected, or even significantly modified, in the face of video recorded data.

In other words, most of the core observations were originally derived from audio evidence alone, and were robust enough to survive the more detailed scrutiny that becomes possible with access to video-recordings.

That's why I'm so convinced that what is said is far more important than the 7% brigade make out. Otherwise, the forum speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar would presumably have started with the words 'Lend me your EYES' - and I wouldn't have been so stupid as to publish a book entitled Lend Me Your Ears.

74 comments:

Laurent said...

A couple of random thoughts:

1. How come it's much easier to have a conversation with a blind person than with someone who's completely deaf?

Because your non-verbal communication is not interfering with your verbal communication. Saying that x% of communication is non-verbal does not imply that verbal & non-verbal communication are saying the same (from the emitters perspective) nor that they are understood as saying the same (receptor). One could argue for less interference.

2. How come we can have perfectly good conversations in the dark?

Again saying that x% of the communication is non-verbal does not imply that a) there is communication without a non-verbal part; b) that communication with a non-verbal part is better than a communication without; c) that all communication have non-verbal parts. It simply says that WHEN there is a non-verbal part, this part represents x%.

3. How come telephones and radio have been such spectacular successes?
I don't see how this is in contradiction with a statement saying that x% of communication is non-verbal (in a situation when there is a non-verbal part).

4. How come we have to work so hard to learn foreign languages?
As with any skill, it is hard to learn. I know people talking more than 7 or 8 languages: for them learning a new language is "easy".

However, I agree to question the x%: how much is x? And in which circumstances?

Max Atkinson said...

I’m not sure I quite understand what points you're making here, Laurent. Maybe I didn’t use enough words even to get 7% of my points across and should perhaps have left it to the cartoon strip to do the job for me so much more economically.

So here are a few more words on each of the four questions I referred to:

1 & 2: My point about the relative ease of conversing with a blind person or with a sighted person in the dark is simply that, in my experience, such conversations seem to proceed pretty smoothly even when one or both of you can’t see anything at all (in marked contrast to conversations when one or other of you can't hear anything).

3: The same is true of speech we hear on radio and telephones, and it’s doubtful whether either gadget would ever have become so popular if only 62% the talk was getting through to us ((i.e. 7% words +55% tone of voice).

4. If 93% comes from body language and tone of voice, native speakers of one particular language would already be able to understand 93% of anything said in any other language without having to go to all the trouble of trying to learn about the missing 7%.

More generally, after about 40 years of doing research of one kind or another, I've never been able to figure out (and nor has anyone been able to enlighten me about) a rigorous research design that would be able to measure the 'variables' words+body language+tone of voice with such precision as to have any confidence in the kinds of percentages that Mehrabian and his fans have bequeathed to a gullible world.

Dave Ferguson said...

Will Thalheimer of Will at Work Learning has tried time and again to drive a stake through the heart of this myth.

Here's a January 2009 post in which he recaps more than six years of trying to ferret out research.

Stephens said...

In the original study, the issue was about ambiguous words. The percentages related to discerning the correct meaning of the words from associated resources.

Make your sentences clear and easy to understand and this issue does not arise.

Sam Deeks said...

Those statistics are 'seminar candy'- easy to regurgitate, easy to swallow :-)

Thinking back to a few different events where I've heard these statistics cited, I'm struck by the fact that I can't actually remember the point that any of those people were trying to make. Interesting.

Body language and intonation certainly do enrich the meaning of the words we speak.

Sometimes, when we communicate without body language and intonation (like online chat or text) misunderstanding can easily occur.

Other times, communication without body language and intonation works perfectly well. Ask any airline pilot.

Body language and non-verbal communication can affirm, confuse, changes and contradict the words we speak.

For some, like airline pilots, it's a kind of confusing 'noise' that could lead to fatal misunderstandings.

For others, body language and intonation is a pleasure, a vocabulary and a resource.

For others, it's a window to a truth they'd prefer hidden.

What interests me is how, when, where and why people embrace or avoid non-verbal communication and the part technology plays in that.

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the first pictures were very funny, and getting into the topic qu ero body language that is widely used in the world, some people do not even realize they are using body language .. this is a very interesting topic!

Mark Bowden said...

I get why you might want to debunk the misquote of this study but I wonder what you view is on the results of Professor Mehrabian’s actual studies "Decoding of Inconsistent Communications" and "Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels" along with subsequent studies of the comparative effect of non-verbal and verbal cues on theory of mind, meaning, feeling and intention. We can all keep going back to rant about the constant misquote–which will frankly never cease because it is simple and entertaining, or now move forward and think carefully about what might be useful about understanding the relative merits of words, images and tones in communicating intention, feeling and data. Certainly with a number of my clients in marketing and public relations we have some very hard, real-time data on all of this, that in no way negates words as extremely effective at communicating and influencing, yet when combined with the right movement, behavior, physical imagery and tonality the results we are looking for from receivers increase in such a way that you would ignore them at just too great a cost.

Merahbian is taken out of context and that is not too helpful—but it does sell an idea, just as you, Max could be viewed as taking Shakespeare out of context to sell yours. (I do hope you did not cherry-pick like that when working with politicians–I’d feel horribly manipulated ;-) Shakespeare like Mehrabian is a little more complex than a single line can communicate I think. In context we might find that Mark Anthony is using the words “lend me your ears” to appeal to his audience to be rational rather than emotional. However, around it he contrives to win their trust and pull them into a rage. It is more complex, duplicitous and poetic on both a dramatic and meta level than a simple instruction to listen to some words.

I am no orator as you are Max, but maybe its time to put down the dagger on body language and look at it more carefully?

Mark Bowden
www.truthplane.com

Full disclosure–I’ve written a current bestseller on “body language” so obviously I am, both consciously and unconsciously, totally, totally biased.

Mark Bowden said...

I get why you might want to debunk the misquote of this study but I wonder what you view is on the results of Professor Mehrabian’s actual studies "Decoding of Inconsistent Communications" and "Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels" along with subsequent studies of the comparative effect of non-verbal and verbal cues on theory of mind, meaning, feeling and intention. We can all keep going back to rant about the constant misquote–which will frankly never cease because it is simple and entertaining, or we can move forward and think carefully about what might be useful about understanding the relative merits of words, images and tones in communicating intention, feeling and data. Certainly with a number of my clients in marketing and public relations we have some very hard, real-time data on all of this, that in no way negates words as extremely effective at communicating and influencing, yet when combined with the right movement, behavior, physical imagery and tonality the results we are looking for from receivers increase in such a way that you would ignore them at just too great a cost.

Merahbian is taken out of context and that is not too helpful—but it does sell an idea, just as you take Shakespeare out of context to sell yours. (I do hope you did not cherry-pick like that when working with politicians–I’d feel horribly manipulated.) Shakespeare like Mehrabian is a little more complex than a single line can communicate I think. In context we might find that Mark Anthony is using the words “lend me your ears” to appeal to his audience to be rational rather than emotional. However, around it he contrives to win their trust and pull them into a rage. It is more complex, duplicitous and poetic on both a dramatic and meta level than a simple instruction to listen to some words.
I am no orator as you are Max, but maybe its time to put down the dagger on body language and look at it more carefully?

Mark Bowden
www.truthplane.com

Full disclosure–I’ve written a current bestseller on “body language” so obviously I am, both consciously and unconsciously, totally, totally biased.

Mark Bowden said...

I get why you might want to debunk the misquote of this study but I wonder what you view is on the results of Professor Mehrabian’s actual studies "Decoding of Inconsistent Communications" and "Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels" along with subsequent studies of the comparative effect of non-verbal and verbal cues on theory of mind, meaning, feeling and intention. We can all keep going back to rant about the constant misquote–which will frankly never cease because it is simple and entertaining, or we can move forward and think carefully about what might be useful about understanding the relative merits of words, images and tones in communicating intention, feeling and data. Certainly with a number of my clients in marketing and public relations we have some very hard, real-time data on all of this, that in no way negates words as extremely effective at communicating and influencing, yet when combined with the right movement, behavior, physical imagery and tonality the results we are looking for from receivers increase in such a way that you would ignore them at just too great a cost.

Merahbian is taken out of context and that is not too helpful—but it does sell an idea, just as you take Shakespeare out of context to sell yours. (I do hope you did not cherry-pick like that when working with politicians–I’d feel horribly manipulated.) Shakespeare like Mehrabian is a little more complex than a single line can communicate I think. In context we might find that Mark Anthony is using the words “lend me your ears” to appeal to his audience to be rational rather than emotional. However, around it he contrives to win their trust and pull them into a rage. It is more complex, duplicitous and poetic on both a dramatic and meta level than a simple instruction to listen to some words.
I am no orator as you are Max, but maybe its time to put down the dagger on body language and look at it more carefully?

Mark Bowden
www.truthplane.com

Full disclosure–I’ve written a current bestseller on “body language” so obviously I am, both consciously and unconsciously, totally, totally biased.

tava tea said...

One of the most widely repeated myths asserts that the relative importance of different factors in communication is even more extreme than the 80% referred to in the above cartoon...

M. Smith Roche said...

Finally someone has exposed the myth. Max you did a splendid job. Mehrabian's research was based on the utterance of a single word in which the human lab rats would deliver the word with different intents. Even Dr. Mehrabian has criticized the ninety three percent model. He claims the intent of the study was to monitor feelings and attitudes not channels of communication. Bravo!

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Actually in some other languages body language and facial expression is more important than English. Somehow I beleive that meaning of the words does not change as much in English depending on the tone of the voice or face expression. In some languages hand gestures plays quite an important role as well. Still English is the plainest of the languages and we are probably lucky to express oursleves in words and do not have to put our face into hundred different shapes everyday just to communicate.

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http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/presentation-myths/mehrabian-nonverbal-communication-research/

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