OK, I’m steaming. The white smoke of expertise is pouring out of my ears. What is it about Albert Mehrabian’s famous study on the ‘silent messages’ we get from non-verbal communications that people get so wrong all the time? It’s constantly taken by ‘communications professionals’ to mean that ’93 % of what we communicate is non-verbal – so it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you look – or how you say it’ or something equally absurd.
Now, there’s a new wrinkle: http://tinyurl.com/klgd6t. A very nice communications company has misinterpreted the Mehrabian study in a new way! Aaaaaargh!
To be sure, the good folks from Creativity Works start out well in this 3-minute video. They begin by taking all those communications professionals to task, and rightly so. Mehrabian never said that 93 % of what we say is non-verbal, so words don’t matter (much). So far so good.
But then they get carried away putting words back on top of the communications heap. The narrator announces, ‘It’s just not true that delivery can make or break a presentation.’ If you get the words right, Creativity Works argues, the delivery doesn’t matter.
I’m afraid this is simply not true. It misrepresents Mehrabian in a new way, and it’s simply, obviously, and demonstrably wrong. How many times have you watched a presentation where something non-verbal got in the way of the words? Perhaps the speaker paced aimlessly but doggedly around the stage until you wanted to scream ‘stop!’? Perhaps the speaker spoke in endless questions, never making a declarative statement in 60 minutes? Perhaps the speaker simply droned on in an irritating, nasal voice, never making eye contact with the audience until you spaced out, went away on the wings of thought, and never, ever came back?
We’ve all had experiences like this, countless times. Of course, delivery can make or break a presentation. It happens all the time. And you know it to be true.
OK, let’s get this done. Here’s what the Mehrabian study did – and didn’t do. I’ve actually read the original study – something Creativity Works apparently failed to do. (I suspect the company only checked out the Mehrabian web site, something CW refers to in the video.) Mehrabian had an experimenter read words to an audience of college students, single words like ‘love’, in different tones and with different expressions. Then, he asked the audience how it knew what the speaker really meant. Where did the audience get the clues for the real intent behind the words? He wasn’t asking about the words at all, but rather the speaker’s intent. When asked that, the audience responded that it decoded the intent behind the speaker’s words from visual clues 55 % of the time, and from tone of voice 38 % of the time. Only 7 % of the time did the audience go to the actual words.
What was the point of all this? Mehrabian’s work was all about what he called the ‘silent messages’ – how people communicate implicitly their emotions and attitudes. His big insight – wait for it – was that when words and non-verbal messages were in conflict, people believe the non-verbal every time. As the CW people show themselves, for example, through a clever cartoon, when a spouse asks, “Are you still angry with me?” and the injured party responds “No,” with folded arms and an angry tone, only an idiot doesn’t realize that in this case ‘no’ means ‘yes’.
That’s it. That’s the Mehrabian message: we get most of our clues of the emotional intent behind people’s words from non-verbal sources. And when the two are in conflict, we believe the non-verbal every time. That’s what Mehrabian said, some 40 years ago, and it still is true and powerful today.