Get past the Mehrabian myth

If you have studied communication much at all, I’ll bet you’ve been exposed to a common set of figures: only 7 percent of the meaning that comes from an interaction comes from the words exchanged. 38 percent comes from the voice, and 55 percent from the body language. You should have a source for information like that, of course, and there has always been a good one: Dr. Albert Mehrabian.

I even cited those figures in a textbook I co-authored, since the figures appeared in the textbook I used as a student way back when Aristotle was in knee pants. They’re great figures that help speakers make a point about delivery.

Except they’re wrong.

I’m embarrassed to tell you this, because long after those figures went into my textbook, backed up by a proper citation of the original study from the 1950s, I stumbled across an interview with Dr. Mehrabian in which he said that study had been taken out of context and exploded into the most egregious myth of communication in modern times.

I was searching for the original source article, since I had lost track of it, and the first four hits led to speaker sites that cited the study to support the importance of nonverbal communication, but didn’t give the actual citation. The fifth linked to the interview with Dr. Mehrabian, and that was the first I realized how gullible I had been.

Since that initial debunking dozens of others have spread the word, including Lisa Braithwaite. She even linked to a recording that seems to be the basis of the article I found. But when I tried to find the interview on YouTube, though the first several entries also debunked the myth (like the one at the top of this article), several current videos from speakers still make the now-outdated claim.

Once misinformation gets out, it’s really hard to put it back.

Dr. Mehrabian said that the accumulation of data over hundreds of studies indeed supports the idea that body language and voice intonation together are very important, accounting for perhaps 75 to 80 percent of the meaning a listener gets from a speaker, including how the speaker feels about his topic, his audience, and himself. But that figure is going to vary depending on the nature of the information being communicated.

My point has less to do with the importance of nonverbal communication, and more with the importance of checking facts! Perhaps those claims greatest in need of checking are the ones everyone knows!

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with individuals and organizations who want to forge top-notch communication skills to increase their influence and impact. He is associate professor of speech and journalism at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.