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  • Stu Turner

In defence of words

Did you know that 55% of communication is done through body language, 38% through tone, and only 7% is through the words we use? Sounds unbelievable, but it’s true, according to a bunch of people who failed to cite any studies or actual evidence. [citation needed]

It really does sound unbelievable. Ever played a game of Charades where you’re allowed to use words? It’s not a good game. How would one even set up an experiment to measure how much information is communicated? What constitutes a single unit of information? If I communicate that I ate toast and beans and nothing else for breakfast, is that one unit or two, three, or should we count another for the implication that I did not eat eggs, another for not eating tomatoes, etc.? Long and the short of it: I’ve long suspected that this statistic is, in fact, a crock of shit.

So I did a bit of digging. The 55/38/7 rule turns out to derive from a study by Albert Mehrabian done…a while back. From what I gather (I confess that when I say I did a bit of digging, I did mean a bit), the study concerned itself solely with communication about feelings and attitudes, and particularly with cases in which the different forms of communication are incongruent – like when you ask someone if something is wrong and they snap “No, I’m fine!” while scowling and folding their arms. In such cases, people are more likely to draw conclusions about what the speaker is feeling from their body language and tone than from their words. That is a far less surprising conclusion – truth can be stranger than fiction, but it’s more often mundane.

So it appears the results of the study have been widely misunderstood, and spread by those who misunderstood them. The original science has been corrupted through its popularisation, to the point where the “science” you’re most likely to come across is wildly inaccurate. It is akin to the popular myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. The result is shitty pseudoscience, bad advice, and – perhaps most importantly - a film so terrible it ruined Morgan Freeman for me.

Unfortunately, the 55/38/7 rule has been picked up by a lot of people giving advice and training on communication and presentation skills. The implication is usually that, if you want to get better at communicating, you need to focus on your tone and body language. It’s true that nonverbal signals can radically change how people engage with a speaker – confidence, excitement and passion, for example, can really help an audience stay focused and engaged. This is a matter of holding someone’s attention. Clarity of communication, however, is an entirely different matter.

The study behind the 55/38/7 rule was focused on situations where the forms of communication are incongruent. Whenever they are incongruent, you open yourself up to misinterpretation – otherwise it would be a 100/0/0 rule. The gold standard for communication isn’t a focus on body language, but rather congruence between all forms of communication. The thing is, body language and tone tend to betray our real feelings and attitudes unconsciously. Indeed, that may well be the reason for the original rule – body language and tone are taken to be more reliable indicators because of they are ways in which we naturally and unconsciously tell the truth. If your communication lacks the congruence necessary for clarity, it’s probably because of your words. As in the example I gave above, something like “something is wrong but I don’t want to talk about it” is probably a clearer and more honest answer than “No, I’m fine”.

It’s not just in speaking that misinterpreting the 55/38/7 rule is dangerous. Public speaking and presentations make a lot of people very nervous. How nervous it makes them is hugely dependant on personality and experience of speaking in a similar setting. It often has very little to do with how knowledgeable they are about what they are talking about. Confidence (or at least the appearance of confidence) is useful in keeping people engaged in what you’re saying. Unfortunately, it also makes them more likely to believe what you are saying. This isn’t the result of better communication on the part of the speaker, so much as of bias on the part of the audience – and it is a bias that involves using nonverbal signals unfairly as indicators of fact. When listening to others, it’s important to try not to confuse confidence with competence. And how do you distinguish the two? Well, it isn’t going to be body language, and it isn’t going to be tone.

I am not denying that nonverbal signals are important and have a place in effective communication. But the notion that these are more important with words is really unhelpful. If you want to communicate clearly, use your words.

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