Word of Mouth – Body Language – BBC Radio 4 – another “Kapow!” by the “Campaign to Stop the Mehrabian Myth”

A repeat of the excellent broadcast from the BBC Radio 4 programme “Word of Mouth”, including amusing exposes of some of the nonsense propagated about “body language”. Only available for 5 more days via the BBC iPlayer.

From www.bbc.co.uk

Body Language: How important is body language in the way we communicate? Are some people much better at it than others? Can good body language be taught? Chris Ledgard investigates. Chris visits Dr Harry Witchel for some body language training, looks into some body language myths, and talks to impressionist Kate Robbins about the way she uses her face and gestures when mimicking people. Produced by Beatrice Fenton.
Tue 17 Aug 2010, 16:00, BBC Radio 4
Mon 23 Aug 2010, 23:00, BBC Radio 4

Read more at www.bbc.co.uk

There are some excellent explanations and discussion of Mehrabian’s research and it’s implications on Olivia Mitchell’s Blog. These are just some snippets:

Mehrabian and nonverbal communication by Olivia Mitchell

Full article:

Short url: http://bit.ly/bvKATF


Mehrabian is often quoted as saying that the meaning of a message is communicated by:

  • Your words 7%
  • Your tone of voice 38%
  • Your body language 55%.

The limitations of Mehrabian’s formula

Mehrabian has himself attempted to limit the application of this formula:

“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.”

In a personal email to Max Atkinson, reproduced in his book “Lend me your Ears”, Albert Mehrabian said:

“I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled “corporate image consultants” or “leadership consultants” has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.
(31 October 2002)

So if we limit the formula to the specific conditions of the experiments, it is only applicable if:

  • a speaker is using only one word,
  • their tone of voice is inconsistent with the meaning of the word,and
  • the judgement being made is about the feelings of the speaker.

In other words, in the real world, Mehrabian’s formula is almost never applicable.

Campaign to “Stop the Mehrabian Myth”

The main group of people who have propagated the Mehrabian myth are presentation trainers, public speaking coaches and other communications consultants.

I’m (also) concerned about the persistence of the Myth because of the impact on presenters:

  1. The Mehrabian Myth puts unwarranted pressure on people who are nervous about speaking. They’ve been led to believe that their delivery can make or break their presentation. This is just not true. If they prepare well-organized valuable content and deliver it at least adequately they are likely to get their message across.
  2. The Mehrabian Myth leads some “wing-it” presenters to under-prepare their content under the misapprehension that so long as they can deliver with energy and dynamism they’ll get their message across. Again, not so.


Mehrabian’s research: The secondary misinterpretation, by Olivia Mitchell


Since writing my first post, I’ve found that it’s a common secondary misinterpretation made by people who know you can’t apply Mehrabian’s formula to all communications.

Mehrabian was measuring how other people could tell whether the speaker liked the listener. The research measured the observers’ judgement of the speaker’s feelings about the listener – not the listener’s feelings about the speaker.

Therefore I believe that the interpretation that how a listener feels about a speaker depends 7% on words, 38% on vocals and 55% on the visual is also wrong.

Read more at:

Albert Mehrabian’s studies in nonverbal communication

Read more at:

and Albert Mehrabian’s website: http://www.kaaj.com/psych/


1 thought on “Word of Mouth – Body Language – BBC Radio 4 – another “Kapow!” by the “Campaign to Stop the Mehrabian Myth””

  1. Did my bit for the “Campaign Against the Mehrabian Myth” today in a post on LinkedIn in the “Language and Brain Group”: http://j.mp/HPmPwr

    “Mehrabian conducted the original research on which claims about the high proportion of language which is “unspoken” are based. Mehrabian has also repeatedly stated that his research did not how any such thing, that the research findings were fundamentally misinterpreted and misrepresented in the “pop-psychology press” and that the “Mehrabian Myth” has, as a consequence, spread unstoppably across the globe ever since.

    I do not deny the importance of non-verbal communication. I am a Speech & Language Therapist who has specialised for nearly 30 years in Augmentative and Alternative Communication, working with people with little or no useful speech. I have met people who have no speech and do not use any form of assistive technology who nevertheless communicate extremely effectively non-verbally, in interactions which permit them to cleverly optimize opportunities for expanding a shared knowledge base and co-construction of meaning.

    I have also trained in Video Interaction Guidance (known as SPIN in the USA and elsewhere http://www.spinusa.org/). This approach is effective in significantly improving communication and interaction skills, through a “strength-based focus” focus on non-verbal communication.

    I had heard of Mehrabian and had seen his findings cited many times and had not questionned the usual interpretation, until I listened to the BBC radio programme “Word of Mouth”. This, with Mehrabian’s support, thoroughly debunked the usual claims and I followed up the references cited.

    The “Word of Mouth” program is not available any more on the iPlayer unfortunately. However, there is short video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dboA8cag1M that covers the basics.

    There is also an audio interview with Mehrabian from a 2009 edition of the BBC Radio 4 “More or Less” Programme (this series deals with interpretation of statistics). This recording is not on the BBC iPlayer so should be accessible outside the UK: http://www.presentationworks.me/index.php/2009/11/mehrabian-on-the-myth/

    I like Olivia Mitchell’s blog posts because she explains different aspects of the myth clearly and in depth and there are interesting disagreements with her line of thinking in the discussion. I have included links to the separate articles in my short blog post: http://j.mp/HC8lBT

    I would encourage anyone interested in Evidence Based Practice this area to have a look at Olivia Mitchell’s articles as they are very readable and her arguments seem well-founded. “

Reply or comment here:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.