Debunking the Myths of Non-Verbal Communication

93% of communication is non-verbal. Everyone knows that, don’ they?

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard this in sales training sessions or read it in books, articles and blogs. Sometimes the stats are qualified further, for example:

“One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication”.

Sounds impressive.

The trouble is – it’s not true.

Let’s think about it for a minute – how can you possibly get 93% of the communication without the words? If you watch a foreign-language film, and watch the body language and listen to the vocal tones – can you really understand 93% of it? I certainly can’t.

The truth is that the experiments at the source of this myth (carried out by researcher Albert Mehrabian in the 70’s) were focused on some very specific areas of communication – namely the communication of feelings and attitudes – not communication in general.

As Mehrabian himself points out:

“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 addition, the construction of the experiments was not an accurate reflection of real-world communication conditions. In one of the central experiments, for example, participants were read out single words (either positive words like “thanks”, neutral like “maybe” or negative like “don’t”) in either positive, negative or neutral voices. In another, the words were combined with photographs of people looking positive, negative or neutral. Participants had to judge whether the words were positive, negative or neutral based on the combined word/tone or word/picture combinations – which is where the statistics came from. It highlighted how the tone of voice or the facial expression often overrode the meaning of the word when it came to conveying a positive or negative feeling.

Of course, in the real world, we typically don’t communicate in single words. And we’re typically not just trying to communicate feelings either. But what has happened is that these important – but limited – findings from the experiments have been taken out of context, repeated, misunderstood, repeated, confused, etc. – up to the point where “93% of communication is non-verbal” has become accepted as fact.

So what is the “real” percentage of communication that’s non-verbal? Well, let’s pause and think about it for a second.

Really, the question is meaningless.

What does “percentage of communication” actually mean? Do you mean the percentage of the actual message that was heard and understood? Or do you mean the percentage of intended emotion that got through? The concept of a “percentage of communication” is so oversimplified that it ceases to have meaning.

In addition, there are so many different types of communication that it’s impossible to give a single figure or average that has any meaning. Even if you could figure out a “percentage of communication” that was non-verbal it would be so radically different for example, for a lecture on mathematics to an impassioned speech on third-world poverty that to give an overall figure would be misleading.

In my experience, the only real answer to the question of “how much of communication is non-verbal?” is “probably more that you think – but less that some trainers and so-called experts would have you believe”.

So what does this mean for sales people?

Well, there’s no doubting that non-verbal communication is important – but don’t take the 93% rule too seriously. The words you use really are vitally important – they’re the core of your communication. Your non-verbals serve mainly to support what you’re saying by conveying your feelings – your passion, your empathy, your truthfulness. How do you make sure your non-verbals provide the right support? Well, critically – don’t fake it. Despite what some trainers may try to convince you of, it really is almost impossible to try to “technique” your way through body-language. Non-verbal communication is so complex – too complex to try to act out or replicate without looking stiff – yet most people are really good at reading it, so they will pick up any fakery very quickly. Instead – make sure you really believe in what you are saying – and the correct non-verbal communication will follow naturally.

And of course, if you find yourself on a training course, or reading an article, and you read the phrase “93% of communication is non-verbal” – then think twice about the credibility of the trainer or author. They haven’t done their homework properly on this – so what else have they skimped on?

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