Nowhere near 93% of communication is non-verbal

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On a webpage for HR people entitled “Listen With Your Eyes: Tips for Understanding Nonverbal Communication” there is the following claim:

“One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.”

This is pretty familiar. If you’ve done training in teaching or public speaking then there’s a good chance you will have heard it. It’s also wrong.

As this post from PsyBlog points out these numbers originate in two studies done in the 1970s by the UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian. However, these studies weren’t of communication in general but of the expression of emotions. And even within these limited parameters, there are good reasons to doubt if the experiments actually predict what would happen outside the lab.

This stands to reason. As Professor Max Atkinson points out in his book Lend Me Your Ears, the 93% rule would have some weird implications:

“If true, for example, it would mean that anyone who is unable to see a speaker’s facial expression, whether they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio or talking to someone on the telephone, would only be able to understand 45 per cent of what was said to them. It would have made more sense for Shakespeare to have had Mark Anthony say, ‘Lend me your eyes’, and for the same correction to be made to the title of this book. Most absurd of all is the fact that, if only 7 per cent is verbally communicated, there would be no need for anyone ever to learn foreign languages, as we would already be able to understand 93 per cent of any particular one of them without any formal instruction at all.”

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