Mythbusting: Albert Mahrabian and his dodgy percentages

A friend of mine was on a Communications Skills course the other day.

Part of the course covered the importance of non-verbal communication, using Mahrabian’s famous 7%/38%/55% equation showing the relative importance of verbal / paralinguistic / facial expression in communication

This was simplified into a content v style dichotomy, emphasising the importance of style (the 38% + 55%: how it was said) over content (the 7% verbal: what was actually said).

My pal was unconvinced that content was only worth a measly 7% of the message and style a whopping 93%.

This is mixing two concepts together, and not really understanding either: the style v content debate is one thing, the (over-)simplified (usually incorrect) use of Mehrabian’s equation is another.


Style versus content

We live in a world of increasingly short attention spans where we even skip forward on short little ten-minute YouTube videos, scanning content to find what we want, and tire of messages which can’t be tweeted in 140 characters or less. Many of us are from the generation that shout impatiently at microwaves as they take three long minutes to heat a plate of leftovers and are so used to news content presented in headlines, photos, video and graphics that a block of text looks like an impregnable chore. The drive is ever toward fewer words, more pictures; fancy flashy style over boring old content.

This misses the point.

The point is that content is king!

Style is there only to support the content, it’s there to ensure the content gets delivered effectively: it’s a vehicle, it’s not the end in itself.

All too often people are taught that people pay more attention to how things are said than what is said, to Mahrabian’s 93% not the crappy little 7%, and this leads to people focusing on style at the expense of content.

Highly Unscientific Anecdotal Experience

I used to have two colleagues who were not quite extreme opposites, but close enough for me to use them to explain a point. One was all fluff and show, full of energy and charisma, funny and the life of the party – but he didn’t say much of any consequence. The other was quiet and serious, calm and deliberate – but he talked a lot of sense.

The former dominated the room, the latter was barely noticed.

It was fascinating to watch their impact on the wider group: Person A was highly effective in short bursts, especially initially – his style won the day. Person B grew in effectiveness over a longer period of time as people learned to shut up and pay attention and tired of the superficial show on offer from A.

To put this into the language of theory to make it sound more important:

If someone is all style (s) and no content (c) then their impact is great at the start, but soon wanes under the spotlight as people get bored. In short, over time, style just isn’t enough.

The opposite character is all content and no style. No one listens at first because it’s so boring, but as time goes by, and messages seep in, people learn that this individual is worth listening to. Their impact grows over time.

I don’t think is groundbreaking stuff – I fully realise that I’m stating the obvious, but as long as people are horsing around with Mehrabian’s percentages, then it jolly well needs saying!

An interesting case study is here.  In this presentation, John Bohannon uses dance instead of PowerPoint.

This is hugely stylish, very creative and clearly something everyone in the audience will remember and be talking about afterwards.

Is it effective?

Yes, in the sense that his objective is to propose that dance can help explain things and he showed that this is possible and he will have opened many minds to that argument. However, he also explained some serious science in the middle of this – how memorable is that?

Did it manage to shout above the dance?

Did the style drown out that content?

Could you explain to someone else about the laser slows down light?

Bohannon’s flashy talk is a great example of extraordinarily style over content.

So what did Mahrabian mean!?

The research by Albert Mehrabian relates to verbal communication only, and states that when there is confusion about the meaning of a message – an incongruence between words and style – people tend to only give words about 7% of attention, the way it’s said 38% and the facial expressions (including body language) the 55%.

So if you say “that’s great” but have a face like a wet weekend, only about 7% of people are going to believe you, and they’re probably all under 7 years of age. Most people will look at your face and get your real message.

Try it when you get home, say to your loved ones. “Yes, sure, I really love you so much it hurts” in a sarcastic voice and see how far that gets you.

This is not the same as saying that the content of your professional presentation only has a value of 7%.

This is where the theory is misunderstood and misused.


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