Do words really count for only 7% of your message? We review the ‘Mehrabian myth’

When you speak, your tone of voice is important. Tone is the music underscoring your words. It must match your content. If it doesn’t, it could sabotage what you’re saying.

Tone is a product of your feelings. If you’re out of sorts, hints of your mood could creep into your presentation. Or maybe you don’t believe in what you’re saying.  You try to bluff your way through, but your presentation is half-hearted. The audience will sense your lack of commitment.

Albert Mehrabian's research has been taken too literally by some communications coachesAlbert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology at UCLA, studied the effect of tone in conjunction with body language and spoken language on an audience. He has become widely known for his 55%, 38%, 7% rule of communication.

Mehrabian found there were three elements in face-to-face communication. Body language (55%) had the strongest impact on an audience, followed by tone of voice (38%). The weakest impact came from the words (7%).

Mehrabian discovered if your body language and tone of voice didn’t match your words, when you were talking about feelings and attitudes, the audience would tend to believe your non-verbal communication and tonality of voice – the 55% plus 38%. The bit in bold is important, and has sometimes been overlooked in overly-literal interpretations of his research – hence the ‘Mehrabian myth’.

Mehrabian’s findings have been widely misinterpreted to mean the words have the least impact of all in any situation.

As we say in our Podium Coaching presentation skills workshops, and in our media skills coaching, it’s your content that matters. But you need to understand – and accept – that to engage with your words, the audience has to deal with a lot of non-verbal communication.

If you don’t control the non-verbal elements, particularly when expressing emotions or talking about feelings, you could sabotage your presentation or interview through unintended visual or vocal distractions.

The more your body language and tone of voice are out of sync with your words, the less likely the audience will truly hear, understand and be persuaded to act on your message.

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