Only 7% of the message is in the words

image I’ve always believed that success in business comes in large part from your personal style or ‘soft skills’ and I find reading books on the subject a good way to observe and reflect on my own style and effectiveness, and hopefully to improve it.  When I find a good book it generally helps me to better understand the things that I already do well and illuminate for the first time some areas where I need to think about things differently.

As you can see from the Visual Bookshelf widget in the right sidebar I’m currently reading The art of persuasion by Juliet Erickson – I’m only 25% of the way through and already I’ve found examples of both the re-enforcement and enlightenment benefits I mention above.  It is one of the re-enforcement benefits I want to bring out here.

When I was growing up the words ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ were frequently heard around our house because we didn’t want to judge people on how they look – and I believe that is the right way to approach the world.  That said, it is a fact of life that we are psychologically programmed to make judgements based on surface appearances and visual cues and often we lack the time to penetrate beneath the surface and are forced to rely on snap judgements.  So, regrettable as it may be, to be effective we need to think about how we are perceived as well as what we are trying to say and do.

The following excerpt from The art of persuasion below in which Erickson cites a 1981 study by Albert Mehrabian is an exceptionally crisp statement of both the importance of how a message is presented and delivered, and the qualities of an effective delivery.

What Mehrabian found was that:

  • 53% of the impression you make on another person comes from your behaviour and body language
    The way you act, move, gesture and express yourself; the tone and inflection of your voice.  Whether you appear confident, organised, interested.  Whether you fumble around, are nervous or distracted.  Whether the meaning and point of your message is clear or muddled.
  • 40% of the impression comes from who you are
    This means your credibility and competence.  Are you likeable, funny, interesting?  Are you who you say you are?  Do they like you?
  • 7% of the impression you make comes from the actual words you say
    This includes the content of what you are saying, as well as your choice of words

At the end of the day the content is always the most important thing – if there is no substance there is no business.  So getting your pitch straight is still job number one, but once that is done, and done well, presentation and delivery deserve almost equal consideration.  They are not quick fix items though – the qualities that Erickson lists take time to cultivate.

Update: As truthflux points out in the comments Mehrabian’s conclusions were different to those reported above.  The sentiment is correct and I stand by the conclusion that many people would benefit from paying more attention to the non-verbal elements of their communication, but the percentages are a nonsense.  Thinking this through some more, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that if your words are saying one thing and your body language another then people won’t be convinced, and therefore it is important to believe in your pitch.  When asking for investment it is critical to exude confidence as well as claim it.

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  • truthflux

    I have no disagreement with the sentiment here: There is definitely a human desire to put people into categories, and soft skills are undoubtedly important in business. I would say that the actual words are a soft skill and very important in some ways, but probably not as important as behaviour in delivering verbal messages.

    However, while the excerpt above is not the full blown Mehrabian myth (http://www.trainingzone.co.uk/item/184720), I'm not quite sure that the conclusions above match what Mehrabian actually concluded. Although the claim above is much less far out than the general “93% of communication is non-verbal”. The three categories looked at were Verbal, vocal inflection and facial expression and the numbers are different from those here. In addition, the experiments he is interpreting are based on communication of emotional states, not natural communication situations.

    I can highly recommend Mehrabian himself speaking on the topic of his being misinterpreted on the excellent BBC radio show (about statistics!) “More or Less”
    http://www.presentationworks.me/index.php/2009/

    From his website (http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html)

    “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.”

    It's all very interesting.

  • Thanks for the clarification

  • Thanks for the comment and sorry it has taken me a while to respond. I've only just had a chance to listen to the Mehrabian interview you pointed to.

    And you are spot on – his conclusions were different to those I reported, in fact in the interview he says “there is no question that my findings cannot be extrapolated to communication in general”!!!.

    Thanks again.

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