Body language bullshit – beware, public-speaking baloney!

BullThis post aims to dispel 2 myths you might have heard about public speaking:

  • an old, very persistent myth, and
  • a new one that seems to date from just 4 months ago.

So let’s get straight into the myth-slaying

Have you heard people say that you convey only 7% of any talk through your words? The same people will likely say you convey much more of your message through tone (38%) and body language (55%). Well

If anyone tells you that,
please let them know it’s nonsense!

Here’s why that’s the case

The 7-38-55 figures come from studies by Albert Mehrabian, but his work focused on:

  • People speaking about feelings or attitudes
  • and when their facial expressions or tone contradicted what they said.

So the figures simply don’t apply to public speaking – unless you’re in the habit of sharing your feelings with a crowd, and at the same time saying one thing but meaning another!

The video below shows the problem with this “Mehrabian Myth” as it’s become known:

As mentioned in the video, here’s Albert Mehrabian’s website, where he seeks to dispel the myth:

“Unless a communicator is talking about their
feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

Despite Mehrabian’s own attempts, and those of many presentation experts (like Olivia Mitchell, Carl Kwan and Joshua Davies), sadly the Mehrabian Myth is one of the most persistent falsehoods in public speaking.

What’s more, even very recently, a variation on the Mehrabian Myth came up when Ethos3 published an infographic on Slideshare with this headline:

“Did you know:
85% of what an audience takes away
is based on body language…” [Untrue!]

Ethos3’s infographic was promptly shared by prolific public-speaking blogger Alex Rister, and then on the Teaching Public Speaking blog. In all, it’s had over 18,000 views in the 4 months since it was published.

The 85% figure is based on comments made by Professor Jerry Shuster, though it seems they were specifically about political debates. Naturally, in politics, one of the key takeaways is how much you trust each candidate, and hence whether you’ll vote for them. (And I dare say there’s plenty of politicians saying one thing and meaning another!) But Ethos3 mistakenly applied the figure to public speaking in general.

As I said in a comment on Alex Rister’s post:

“Try this experiment: Split an audience into 2 groups. Show 1 group a video of a speech (without slides) with the sound turned off. With the other group, play them the sound but don’t show them the screen. Who do you think would come away with more understanding of the talk? Of course, the people who could actually hear what was said would!

…There are some good points made in the infographic, but having an untrue statement as its headline means that it could cause more harm than good, and casts undeserved doubt on its other content.

Please, let’s not spread misinformation
about the importance of body language!”

 
The bottom line’s this:

If you see public-speaking myths being shared,
please challenge them.

Your turn

What other myths have you heard about public speaking? Please share them in the comment box below.

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18 thoughts on “Body language bullshit – beware, public-speaking baloney!

  1. I’m interested in the topic here. And enjoyed reading this article. It’s clear that the Mehrabian study is inapplicable. Apart from the findings the cohort used for the study was small and demographically specific.

    However I’d like to expand the conversation a little further. I have a problem with the way it is often debunked. There is no reason to say that “if there were no words could you really understand what was being said? (Insert cartoon of body language but no audible words)” or similar.

    My reasoning is that usually what is under consideration is a situation where all 3 are present, and what is being discussed is the contribution each makes during that situation.

    Therefore to debunk by silencing any of the three will fail (or raise unuttered questions in the audience) because no-one in the audience is imagining a communication where one is missing other than in telephone training etc.

    For me it is far better to encourage the audience question the validity of the sample group by size and demographic of cohort.

    I often have to present this material in training courses that I haven’t written myself where I am contracted to deliver that material.

    I tell clients that I am happy to use the material but that there will be caveats during the presentation and I will use the model only as a jumping off point rather than a fundamental wisdom such as the author of the training intended.

    For me too much training focusses weakly on the content and strongly on its delivery. Style over substance you might say.

    Thanks for the interesting article.

  2. This is an interesting discussion, but I believe both parties (the pro- and anti-Mehrabians) got it wrong. Communication really always consists of 2 streams: the facts/data stream and the emotional stream. The former is transmitted largely through words, while the latter is transmitted largely through body language and tone of voice. How important each stream is, depends on the situation. If you are talking about a science problem, the content may be all you need. If you are trying to inspire, motivate, seduce, persuade, etc then paralinguistics (body language & tone of voice) will often play a signifcant or even crucial role. Paralinguistics are also the basis of charisma. The great thing about Mehrabian’s statistic is that people who believe in it, learn to pay more attention to body language and tone of voice. However, I do not believe it makes them undervalue the power of words.

    • Thanks for joining in, Jarno. You’ve certainly made me think, so that’s great!

      I think you’re absolutely right about emotion largely being transmitted bodily and through tone. I disagree with your last 2 sentences though, as I’ll explain here.

      With no mention in the Mehrabian Myth of any context, the figures imply that they apply globally, even to science problems. And because there’s nothing to indicate they should be taken loosely, I believe people often take the figures literally. To me, that’s bound to warp people’s approach.

  3. Craig, thanks so much for stopping by my blog and commenting on Presentation Myths. Thanks also for a great post and introducing me to the Creativity Works video — I had not seen that before.

    It is just mind-boggling that the Mehrabian Myth still prevails given all the debunking it has had from presentation experts. I actually found it in some training material from a very well respected training organization [who shall remain nameless:)]. I remember a few years ago when Olivia Mitchell wrote extensively about it but I had missed the exchange on Nick Morgan’s blog, so thanks for pointing me to that.

    It makes me think it’s time to remind my newsletter and blog readers about this!

    I like your site and will look forward to reading future posts.

  4. Pingback: Forget Everything You've Heard About Body Language - Rob Biesenbach

  5. Thank you for joining the crusade against this myth.
    If anyone holds themselves out to be any sort of an expert on communication and they quote this, they’ve lost all credibility in my eyes.
    There might be something in it though. On a recent visit to Spain I asked for directions 100 times and only got lost 7 times. That must have been the 7% when I needed to understand the words.
    And besides, how could you possibly measure, with any accuracy, the transfer of information in a message of any complexity – let alone break it down as to how it was transferred?
    How can people accept this rubbish so willingly? I think it’s because they’re only using 10% of their brains. Don’t even get me started on that one.

    • People certainly lose credibility by quoting the Mehrabian Myth as though it’s true, as I said about Ethos3’s graphic. So it shows it’s worth checking the accuracy and suitability of statistics, quotes, or other references we make.

      I enjoyed your comment Terry, so thanks for speaking up.

  6. It’s like nails on a chalkboard when I see that stupid 92/8% statistic quoted. The biggest danger is that it leads people to think their content barely matters. And it gets them “up in arms” about dumb stuff like what to do with their arms, when they should be focusing on content and delivery.

    I quote actual body language expert Dr. Nick Morgan: “[I]f you’re going to give a speech, decide beforehand that you’re thrilled to have the opportunity to present to this great group of people … think first about what the purpose of the interaction is, what you want to get out of it, and what your attitude toward it is. If you focus your emotions in this way, your gestures will take care of themselves.”

    • Welcome to the blog Rob, and thanks for commenting.

      Interesting that you mention Nick Morgan. In this post of his, he applauds some aspects of the Creativity Works video and criticises others. (The comments below his post are insightful too, and include debate with blogger Olivia Mitchell about how to interpret Mehrabian’s work.)

      When I looked up that link, I also found this Nick Morgan quote, which I found interesting in the light of his comments on Mehrabian’s findings. It’s in a series of posts called “Why body language matters – and how to think about it”.

      “Non-verbal communications isn’t just another human conversation; it’s the most important human conversation.”

      So it’s a complex topic!

      Still, I agree that gestures should come quite naturally on stage if you feel relaxed, and you focus on giving the audience value they can act on.

      • Thank you, Craig. Great post!

        Yes, I’m currently reading Nick’s new book, Power Cues, and there is more to the unconscious signals we send with our body language than I’ll ever understand, or at least master. Very complex!

        On the other hand, I think for most people going about their ordinary business — the presenter, the job interview candidate — I’d rather them focus on telling a compelling story with energy than worry about the way their legs are crossed or hands are folded.

        Great debate on that 2009 post, which I had not seen. I do agree that delivery can make (or more likely, break) a presentation in some instances, but that it all starts with great content. Which I realize isn’t a controversial point, but much of that thread was people for the most part agreeing with each other on the essential points.

  7. Though I agree with what you’re saying (and thank you for posting it), it appears Prof. Mehrabian didn’t help things any when he said on that same page you linked to:

    Most of the findings summarized in “Silent Messages” can be used to enhance one’s awareness of the many subtle aspects of interpersonal communication, and to improve one’s communication skills.

    He then goes on to detail a wide variety of different situations, including “During persuasion”, where his findings are applicable. In fact, that one bolded paragraph you mentioned seems to be the only place where Prof. Mehrabian makes a disclaimer anything like this, and that appears to be an afterthought, which I suspect was added long after the original, more over-reaching description.

    There is a lesson here as well: not only should we be careful about the applicability of what others write, we should be careful about how we present it ourselves. I doubt Prof. Mehrabian meant to mislead anybody, but it seems like it’s easy to get caught up in the hype ourselves, because he did mislead nonetheless.

    • Thanks for your thought-provoking comment Gary.

      I haven’t read the book Silent Messages, so I can’t say what all its findings are. I will say I’ve not seen any evidence of Mehrabian misleading anyone though.

      Rather, it’s other people’s reporting of his work that’s misleading, like people who generalise and say “93% of communication is non-verbal”. (Or “85% is non-verbal”, in the case of Ethos3’s infographic – misapplying Shuster’s statement in that case).

      Non-verbals do play a role in all non-written communication, such as “during persuasion”. But in most situations, I don’t believe they account for anywhere near 93% or 85% of the total effect. And it seems Mehrabian said the 93% was true solely for the narrow conditions I bulleted in the post.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting, and I’d love to hear any more thoughts you have about this.

  8. Thanks for mentioning myself and my buddy Joshua as people trying to dispel this myth.

    Body language does matter. But the main thing for me is still the message and the action/outcome you wish to create. And then it’s how you use your voice in delivering that message. People should concentrate more on getting those two things down, before they get too caught up in body language.

    Another great post, Craig!

    • And thanks to you for your support Carl.

      I strongly agree: body language counts, as does every bit of a speaker’s approach, such as how they dress. To me, you nailed it on the head when you pointed to the outcome as being the key aspect.

      (For people who’ve not read it, please see Why present? JFK said it all, for more on the importance of a talk’s outcome.)

      I think good body language should mostly just emerge naturally when a speaker feels at ease. (I’ve got 6 tips to help speakers relax, my favourite of which is Amy Cuddy’s “power poses”. That works a treat for me!)

      Recently I saw another great video about body language – though this time not trying to dispel any myths – so I’ll share that in an upcoming post.

  9. I think the speaker can have greater control over what the audience remembers from the presentation, simply by following a core principle:

    “I’m going to tell you these 3 things…
    Tell them the 3 things.
    “If you take 3 things away from this discussion, they are…

    While tonality, body language and other non-verbal factors certainly influence the message that’s received, the structure and verbal clarity shouldn’t be ignored.

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