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Do not misrepresent and misuse the Mehrabian statistics on non-verbal communication.

I would be very surprised if some presenter has not trotted out Mehrabian’s statistics about not verbal communication is only 7% of the communication.

99 times out of a 100, when I hear this, the person talking is using the research out of context and misrepresenting it.

Typically they draw a circle and say that only 7% of communication is verbal, 38% is how it is said and 55 % is visual.

Then they say that this applies to all communication!

They are talking rubbish.

If you want to debunk it quickly, ask them to tell you the time without saying anything? You can’t unless they show you their watch.

The actual experiment was about about communicating feelings and emotions. Not facts. It fact the experiment only used SINGLE words that carried an emotional context and looked for congruence between the word, voice and face.

Note FACE only. NOT the whole body as many claim.

The actual work concluded:
· Words
· Voice/Tone
· Face and expression
Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking

The work was actually about feelings and attitudes. Not Facts.

What the peddlers of the urban myth version of Mehrabian’s statistical story don’t make clear – or perhaps don’t know themselves – is that Mehrabian’s research was concerned with a very specific, and limited, aspect of non-verbal communication – it’s not about communication in general.

His work relates only to inconsistent messages about feelings and attitudes, that is, face-to-face exchanges in which the meaning of what we say is contradicted by our body language and tone of voice.

Mehrabian himself says in a later paper, “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

You can find a useful reference to his papers on Wikipedia. I strongly recommend that if you are going to refer to these statistics then
a) read the original work
b) ensure you refer to single emotional words when explaining it.

Please please please, only ever use these statistics in context, or don’t quote them at all.

Don’t get me wrong. Non-verbals do matter. Congruence does matter. Belief in the information does matter. Confidence in your story, does matter. A good presented will put emotion and expression into what they say. But please don’t miss use these statistics to make the point. It will undermine your credibility with those in the know.

Phil Jones
Communicating Strategy