Mehrabian myth? The non-verbal elements of personal impact

Creative articulation - correcting troublesome sounds and vocal authority
Vocal Authority & Creative Articulation: Correcting Troublesome Sounds

Mehrabian myth? The non-verbal elements of personal impact

Employees Listening to Presentation the non verbal elements of personal impact

Do Mehrabian’s statistics hold true for public speaking and presentations.

Employees Listening to Presentation the non verbal elements of personal impactAnyone who has had any presentation or public-speaker coaching will have encountered the statistic based on work by Mehrabian in 1967, which has since been used to suggest that the non-verbal components of our communication make up 93% of its impact.

As a voice and speaker coach, Mehrabian’s statistics have always been a guide I’ve regarded with at best caution and at worst, downright scepticism. If the message (and not the messenger) is what matters, surely it follows that the content must count for something more than the measly 7% that is left to it? My angle has always been that it is entirely contextual. It’s affected by the importance of the message to the audience, balanced by our commitment in delivering it.

I have recently, belatedly, discovered many fellow Mehrabian sceptics. Max Atkinson’s blog has been waging an energetic and witty war on the tyranny of non-verbals. Anne Karpf offers similar doubts in her engaging book on the voice, “The Human Voice: the Story of a Remarkable Talent”. CreativityWorks have a splendid animated piece on their site illustrating the fallacious misuse of the original experiment. I am sure there are many others equally standing up for common sense, but my concern is that we don’t throw the useful implications out with the over-used bathwater.

The problem is that Mehrabian’s actual equation, where relative importance = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking, only applies in a situation where attitudes are being expressed and where there is a perceived inconsistency between the message and the way in which it is being said (both physically and vocally). So there are many circumstances in which it is not necessarily relevant.

BUT firstly, almost any presenting piece is about influencing, and therefore expressing attitudes. No speaker coach would pretend that a lack of congruence (“I am so excited about this project” delivered in monotone of unexcitedness”) is not off-putting, damaging to the message and downright distracting. It might be that we simply can’t measure, as tidily as Mehrabian would like, the percentage of the damage or indeed the percentage of value we can add by being not only congruent, but genuinely skillful in the performance element of the package.

Secondly, any speaking event is a chance to create relationship or rapport with the audience, so depending on their subjective preferences, any number of other less conscious elements are at play. Are you going to tell me you don’t care at all how someone looks or sounds, especially when you first meet them? Really?

The non-verbals elements are the parts the speaker is least likely to have thought about properly, if at all. They might have considered their body language a little – as far as their self-awareness will allow. The number of clients who arrive with any real knowledge of their physical habits, never mind their vocal quality, is a very small percentage of the whole (but, in the name of scientific truth, not one I am going to attempt to pin down!).

Martin Shovel, again from CreativityWorks, says: “We should always bear in mind that words are the main ingredient of presentations, talks and speeches. But they have to be the right words, used in the right way, by the right person, at the right time. So maybe it’s no wonder that many of us would rather embrace the false comfort of a spurious statistic than face up to the creative challenge of trying to discover those right words.”

I love the challenge in this assertion, and would say yes, exactly, ‘used in the right way, by the right person…’ The speaker will probably have had explicit responses about what they say, and can at least objectively see their sentence structure on paper. The likelihood of having had specific and useful feedback or coaching on body and voice use is considerably less (and much harder to tell from inside one’s own frame). It doesn’t mean we don’t also care about language and structure. Why ruin a beautifully crafted message when you can illuminate it?

It is a package, and one of our jobs as coaches is to give the speaker increased self-awareness in all the areas we can – leading to increased choice. We would want to know if it was us in the spotlight, wouldn’t we?

What’s your opinion on the Mehrabian statistics? All responses very welcome!

Please share