Is 93% of communication really non-verbal?

At some point in your career, you have probably been sat in a session teaching you how to be a better presenter, and you have been told “93% of all communication is non-verbal, what you say is not as important as how you say it”. But have you ever stopped to think about that? 

Woman locked mouth relating to non verbal communication

Non-verbal communication and cues?

If we take this claim at face value, this means that if you stopped someone on the street and asked for directions to a wine bar on the other side of town, you should be able to understand 93% of their directions based on their tone of voice and gestures alone. In other words, you should be able to find your way to the wine bar without too much difficulty. Now pointing and gesturing can get you so far, but even with a good dose of luck, I’m not overly confident I’ll make it to the wine bar – and nobody deserves be deprived of their wine on a Friday evening.  

So, what’s wrong with the 93% statistic? Is it just plain wrong? Well, yes and no. The statistic comes from the work of a psychologist called Albert Mehrabian, but this statistic vastly oversimplifies his findings.  Mehrabian was only interested in relatively simple communication in relation to feelings and attitudes. He even tried to distance himself from the statistic claiming, “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable”. 

This is obvious when you start to dig a little deeper and look at the experiment in detail. Participants didn’t watch a whole conversation, instead they simply watched an experimenter saying nine words in isolation. Three words were positive (dear, honey, and thanks), three neutral (oh, maybe, and really’ and three negative (brute, don’t, and terrible). Each word was said three times either in a positive, neutral or negative way, and participants were asked to determine if they believed what the experimenter said, or how it was said. Unsurprisingly people trusted the tone and facial expressions more (if you’re not sure about this, imagine if your partner told you “I’m not cross with you” You’re probably going to believe their tone, rather than their words). So, for emotional content – it ‘sort of’ holds true but when it comes to any other sort of communication, the content is far more important.  

What does this mean for me? 

While the 93% statistic does not apply to most communication, there is no hiding away that we need to focus on more than just our choice of words and this is not only the case for presentations. The same principles apply to both point of sale displays and packaging. Research consistently shows that we are not the best at remembering factual information (think about how hard it is to revise for an exam) instead, we are much more effective at remembering emotional content and stories. This is where design and creativity can really help. Great design helps to make your communication more memorable. It will prime people to think in a certain way and it will create a logical story that is easy for our brain to remember.  

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