Back in the summer of 2009, we created an animation about the importance of words in spoken communication and uploaded it to YouTube. We called it Busting the Mehrabian Myth, and now, many years later, it’s had more than a quarter of a million hits, and rising.
It was based on an article by Martin that set out to explode the still widespread myth that when someone speaks, only 7% of what they mean is communicated through the words they use, while the rest is conveyed through their facial expressions (55%) and tone of voice (38%).
These statistics are based on research carried out over fifty years ago by Albert Mehrabian, now Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But his research set out to prove nothing of the kind, as he’d be the first to tell you. What the pedlars of the urban myth version of Mehrabian’s statistical story don’t make clear – or perhaps don’t know themselves – is that Mehrabian’s research was concerned with a very specific, and limited, aspect of nonverbal communication. It’s not about communication in general. His work relates only to inconsistent messages about feelings and attitudes, that is, face-to-face exchanges in which the meaning of what we say is contradicted by our body language and tone of voice.
After posting our animation on YouTube, we sent a link to Tim Harford, the presenter of Radio Four's 'More Or Less'. A few weeks later, he managed to track down Professor Mehrabian and interview him for the programme. Harford didn't beat around the bush, he began by asking, "whether 93% of communication is non-verbal?" Mehrabian's reply was direct and unequivocal, "absolutely not, and whenever I hear that misquote or misrepresentation of my findings, I cringe…"
You can listen to the programme here - the interview starts 23 minutes and 8 seconds into the programme.