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93% of communication is (not) non-verbal

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

I was recently asked to come up with a few examples of “the worst 'HR consultancy speak' phrases” I’d ever heard. It was almost too easy to begin the list - much trickier to find an appropriate place to stop.

A lot of jargon, clichés, and buzzwords are used on many training courses (something we work really hard to avoid), but luckily, most people have seen enough and heard enough to spot these things coming from miles away. More insidious, and potentially more dangerous, than this is the tendency, is the tendency to present “scientific facts” to audiences, even if there is no basis for them at all.

One of the absolute classics (covered in a recent edition of Radio 4’s More Or Less) is the statement that 93% of communication is non-verbal. In the programme, Tim Hartford interviewed the academic whose research has been misrepresented by so many in this way, Albert Mehrabian.

In one study participants had to judge the positive, negative or neutral content of various words. Three were chosen to be positive - 'dear', 'thanks' and 'honey' - three neutral - 'oh', 'maybe' and 'really' - and three negative - 'brute', 'don't' and 'terrible'. Each was then read in either a positive, neutral or negative tone of voice.

In a second study participants had to judge if the word 'maybe' was positive, negative or neutral from looking at a photograph of a person with a positive, negative or neutral face. The actual (as opposed to “management training”) conclusions from this research was that tone was 5.5x more powerful in determining the participants’ judgement than the words, and that facial expression was about 50% more powerful than the tone of voice.

From this, an over-simplified conclusion has been drawn, that only 7% of (the response to) communication is based on the words, 38% is tonality, and 55% is facial expression (or more broadly, body language).

During the radio interview, he blew a hole, beautifully, through this interpretation, by explaining that if he were asked where a pencil was, he would struggle to communicate that is was in the third drawer down of the left hand side of the desk in the spare bedroom without using words.

There are a number of things that can be taken out of this wonderful little destruction of a myth:

1) Be very wary of supposed scientific data. People may be twisting data to support their own arguments (although this is sometimes pretty easy to spot), but, more subtly, they may be regurgitating things they have heard themselves, without going back to the source and truly understanding it.

2) Understand that communication is terrifically, beautifully complex, and that developing communication skills is a lifetime’s work, not a 10-step programme or a quick training course fix. Of course, having the opportunity to take time to look at communication in detail and work with others on it is fantastic, but it will not fix everything instantly.

3) Equally, don’t forget that, however ridiculous the “93%” statement is, that the experiments (and common sense) does show that the non-verbal parts of communication are extremely important, and that, allied with the verbal aspects, can change, alter, or strengthen the message that you are trying to get across.

4) Be aware that not everyone in the management training industry applies common sense themselves - there are (unfortunately) a few who insist on mis-applying over-simplified pop-psychology and presenting themselves as enlightened gurus while they do it!


If anyone has further examples of some of the nonsense spread throughout the HR and management training industry, or have personal experience of it from training courses they’ve been on, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

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Hi Simon

Another example of a myth consistently rolled out by trainers is the Harvard study of students who wrote down their goals apparently achieving more success than those that didn't. I am 99% certain, though we know that 75% of statistics are made up, :-) that no such study exists. If anyone can find the original source I would be more than happy to eat my words. *Throws down the gauntlet*
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gravatar Alan Matthews – Solihull
November 07, 2012 - 17:35
Subject: Re; Examples of Training Myths

Very good article. I must admit that, when I started in training, I was also guilty of repeating nonsense about the Mehrabian research because I'd heard it from another trainer and hadn't read the original work myself. A lot of this goes on in the training and self-development world. If enough people say something, it becomes accepted wisdom, even if it all goes back to a very limited piece of research ( or even no research at all ).

There are 2 things I've heard NLP practitioners say which I would like to see the evidence for. One is that you can tell if someone is a " visual " learner, for example, because they say, " I see what you mean " whereas " auditory learners " say things like, " I hear what you say ".The other is that the brain can't understand negatives, e.g. if you say, " Don't eat that " the brain hears, " eat that ". My brain seems to be perfectly capable of distinguishing between the two.

Incidentally, I now discuss the verbal and non-verbal communication idea by talking about common situations, e.g. when you give someone a present and you're not sure they'll like it, you watch their eyes intently while they're opening it and you pay great attention to their tone of voice when they inevitably say, " Oh, this is great, thank you. " If you detect the slightest flicker of disappointment, you don't believe the words. This suggests that we attach more weight to the non-verbal signs if they don't support the verbal. Not very scientific but supported by numerous everyday examples.

gravatar Julie – North Yorkshire
November 07, 2012 - 16:32
Subject: Other examples

Hi Simon

Another example of a myth consistently rolled out by trainers is the Harvard study of students who wrote down their goals apparently achieving more success than those that didn't. I am 99% certain, though we know that 75% of statistics are made up, :-) that no such study exists. If anyone can find the original source I would be more than happy to eat my words. *Throws down the gauntlet*

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July 31, 2012 - 05:57
Subject: Non-verbal communication - the Mehrabian Myth and other management training nonsense/pop psychology. Management training blog

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gravatar Simon Raybould
November 13, 2010 - 12:35
Subject: Other examples - tongue in cheek....

You asked for other examples of where nonsense is peddled....? How about all those bits of NLP which aren't lifted wholesale from CBT? ;)

More seriously, I'd like to get hold of the original research behind the looking up and right stuff.

A more sensible example, is the VAK model - no empirical evidence that it makes any difference at all, and yet people buy into it time and time again. Interesting research from Newcastle University recently looking at the empirical justification of various learning style models....


gravatar Martin Shovel
April 13, 2010 - 11:04
Subject: Distinguishing opinion from fact

Thanks for an interesting blogpost, Simon. The only part I'd take issue with is your third point. Mehrabian's experiments used very small samples, and in my view they don't demonstrate much beyond the pretty obvious - ie if someone says something (eg I like this meal) but their non-verbal behaviour contradicts it (eg they have a pained look on their face, etc), the contradictory signals they give off create doubts in other people's minds about the veracity of their statement. Given the size of the samples I think it would be very unwise to generalize from them. So, from an empirical scientific perspective I'd be curious to know what you mean when you write "that the non-verbal parts of communication are EXTREMELY (my capitals) important." I suspect you're expressing a personal view, not stating a demonstrable, and testable, fact. Cheers, Martin.

Reply to Martin Shovel
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
November 13, 2010 - 22:47
Subject: Re: Distinguishing opinion from fact

Hi Martin

Eons ago, I promised to reply to this, and the fact that I am only now doing so is more testament to my time management skills than the level of interest that your comment sparked.

Firstly, I'll admit that I'm expressing a personal view, and that I have absolutely no data to hand to support my position. However, having recently reviewed Max Atkinson's appearance on the documentary about training speakers, I would imagine he does - even if he might argue against it - especially given some of the ludicrous comments made about interpreting 'body language' by some experts.

I believe that the words we use are critically important, but that, used in conjunction with authentic, free and natural body language, they are even more powerful. Speakers can use brilliant words, constructed beautifully, but still fail to get a message across, just as a hugely 'body-articulate' speaker could lose their audience if the structure of their speech and the words they use are badly done.

I commented on Max's post on body language ( and on the outcome of the claptrap documentary ( - the examples he uses of Thatcher, Scargill and others show, to me at least, the powerful combination of words, tonality and body language.

The other aspect of Mehrabian's research is that he distinguished between communicating factual and emotional information, and this is yet another crucial level of subtlety that is missed by those who are simplistic in their approach to using theory and research.

On that very last point, I'd be interested in your thoughts on - my view on how perfectly good theories and models can be undermined by their misuse.

Thanks for your provocative comment - looking forward to more!

Kind regards, Simon.

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