The 93% non-verbal communication myth

10 Feb
February 10, 2015

As good L&D professionals, we try hard to deal with facts – when on occasion we are simply perpetuating myths. L&D can be a funny old place – we are the holders of so much vital information and our ‘customers’ – our learners – rely on us for guidance and assurance.  But what if the knowledge we’re imparting is false?

In this post I’ll be looking at the widely held myth that 93% of communication is non-verbal.

Most of you reading this post may well baulk at the idea that I’m challenging such a well-known ‘fact’ – but bear with me. According to the Oxford Dictionary a myth is a widely held but false belief or idea. And so it is with the idea that 93% of communication is non-verbal.

 The back story

The myth about communication being 93% non-verbal almost certainly didn’t start with the L&D profession – but we’ve been exceptionally complicit in the spread of this idea and whenever we make this claim I almost always see it “supported by research” – but what actually is the original research upon which we base so much faith?

Well, in 1967 there actually was a research study undertaken that found that 93% of communication was non-verbal – hooray! However, this happened only under very specific conditions. The following excerpt from The Virtual Handshake explains what the original study found.

The origins of the myth

Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor, completed research in 1967 which showed the significance of non-verbal cues in communication. He concluded that the combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal and facial attitude communication is a weighted sum of their independent effects – with the coefficients of .07, .38, and .55, respectively. (Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris, Inference of attitudes from non-verbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology 31 (1967): 248-252. )

Out of context, this implies that in face-to-face communication, 38% of communication is inflection and tone of voice, 55% is facial expression, and only 7% is based on what you actually say – but that’s only part of the story.

The myth of the 93% non-verbal communication statistic has grown into a widely quoted and oft-misunderstood urban legend. Many communication skills trainers and image consultants misuse this data to indicate that your intonation, speaking style, body language, and other non-verbal methods of communication overpower your actual words. The result is that many people are concerned that effective communication is only effective if they ‘look right’ – and this is especially concerning with online communication as the body language, facial expression and tone of voice cannot be effectively conveyed – Skype excepted.

However, what we have ‘believed’ for years is not true. That’s right – it’s a myth. What actually happened was that Mehrabian’s study only addressed the very narrow situation in which a listener is analysing a speaker’s general attitude towards that listener (positive, negative, or neutral). A very important fact almost always overlooked is that in the original experiments the various people being studied did not know one another and therefore had no basis or context for their discussion. As Mehrabian himself has said explicitly, these statistics are not relevant except in the very narrow confines of a similar situation. A myth develops…

Mehrabian is aware of the growth of this myth and has said of this development: “My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. “Silent Messages” contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.  Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages — these are the original sources of my findings.” [Bold added].  For a an additional debunking of this myth, see Contributions of Different Modalities to Content.

As learning professionals, we all need to do our part to stop the spread of this common communication myth.  I wonder how many other myths exist – and would love to hear from readers about any they are aware of.

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2 replies
  1. Craig Taylor says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I always find plenty of ‘busted myths’ over on Will Thalheimer’s site

    http://www.willatworklearning.com/myths_and_worse/

    Craig

    Reply
  2. Jonathan Kettleborough says:

    Hi Craig,

    Thanks for the link to Will’s site – I’ll take a look and see what he’s saying.

    Jonathan.

    Reply

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