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.