Congruent communication packs the biggest punch


Some stats are quoted so glibly that they are no longer facts. They become memes. For example, this one:

When talking,
Words account for only 7% of communication
Tone of voice accounts for 38% of communication
Body language accounts for 55% of communication

These stats are often translated to, “93% of communication is non-verbal”. You’ve probably seen this. But you should un-see it as soon as possible, because it’s crap.

The problem is that like so much crap that’s bandied about, it’s based on an actual, well-respected study. Albert Mehrabian’s study on nonverbal communication, in fact, which would appear to give whoever quotes these stats credibility, until of course someone checks the facts. The litmus test would, however, have to be in practicing this. If you believe that words don’t matter – or only matter 7% of the time – then you’ve obviously never had a misunderstanding (see my blog from last week!), and you are in for a world of pain, both in your private and business communications. People won’t listen to you, and worse still, won’t follow.

So what was Mehrabian’s study about? Well, as you can imagine, lots. But these particular stats were about interpreting the intent behind the words. Basically, when people’s words are at odds with their tone of voice or body language (imagine someone saying “I love you” in a sarcastic way with their back to you), then we fall back on interpreting their tone of voice and body language. Incongruence between words and tone or body language makes people not pay attention to the words.

What about other times? We don’t really know. As it turns out, under ordinary circumstances, people aren’t so easily standardised, and generalising is a grave error. Some listeners will tune in to body language, some to words, and some to tone. For most, it will be a mixture. For example, words are important to me, but if the speaker has a voice like nails down a blackboard, it won’t matter if he is Oscar Wilde.

The lesson, then, is that words, tone, and body language are equally important, and you should make them congruent, clear and excellent. When? Here’s a stat for you: 100% of the time.