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.
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
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:
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.
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.