The Body Language Myth | What it means for presenters - Speaking Edge

The great body language myth

If you've attended any business skills training course, the chances are you've been told that your communication is made up of these elements:

  • 55% - Body Language
  • 38% - Tone of Voice
  •   7% - Your Words

Can as much as 93% of all communication really come from non-verbal signals? 

Of course not. It's complete nonsense. Even the Professor who undertook the original research has made clear this is a total misrepresentation of his studies.

So, what does this mean in practice for those wishing to improve their presentation skills?


Your words matter

Time and time again, communication 'experts' tell us that only 7% of the meaning of our communication comes from words. The rest comes from non verbal indicators such as tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures etc.

These stats originate from Professor Albert Mehrabian's studies, published in 1967 in his book, 'Silent Messages'.

If the 'communication experts' are correct, 93% of your next presentation could be delivered in a foreign language. Provided you maintained the same tone and body language, your audience would understand everything you had to say. Try it if you wish and see if it works!

So, just how important are your words? How much impact do non-verbal signs have?

Most importantly, what should you be focusing on the next time to try and convince an audience about your ideas? 

“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson


What did Mehrabian's study tell us?

Mehrabian's research sought to understand how much we are influenced by non-verbal signals when a person says one thing but means another.

He carried out two experiments. First, he got participants to record single words such as "love", "maybe" and "brute" using either a positive, neutral or negative tone of voice. These were evaluated by a small sample of volunteers.

In the second experiment, these words were combined with pictures of female models using three different facial expressions.

He was testing two things. First, where the message was contradicted by the tone or facial expression, which did the listeners tend to believe? He established that listeners believed the tone or facial expression far more than words.

The second element was to understand whether the listeners placed more reliability on the speakers' facial expression or tone of voice. He found that the listeners placed greater emphasis, by about 1.5 times, on facial expressions.

Mehrabian made it quite clear on his website that these numbers only apply when people are speaking about their feelings and attitudes. It doesn't apply in any other situation at all.

His great insight was this. When words and non-verbal messages are conflicted, people believe the non-verbal most of the time. 

For example, if, after an argument, someone asks, “Are you still angry with me?” and the offended party responds “No!” with folded arms and an angry tone, most of us understand "No" really means "Yes".

Your don't need to be a body language expert to know this. It happens unconsciously.

That's a very long way from what you may have been told before about how little your words actually count (7%!).

So, what impact does that have on us as speakers?

You have to believe to be believable.

The most inspiring and influential speakers are congruent. In other words, their body language and tone are consistent with their words. This usually happens quite naturally.

Problems occur when speakers don't entirely believe in their message and try and fake it.

If you attempt to control your body language or tone to make it align with your words so that you’re persuasive, authentic, and even charismatic, you're likely to fall flat on your face.

Your listeners, unconscious experts that they are, will sense that something is wrong. They may not be able to put their fingers on the precise problem. They may think "she didn’t appear genuine", or, "he seemed fake, scripted or insincere". 

Either way, you've totally lost your audience at this point.

I recall a recent example when coaching a management team ahead of their forthcoming sales conference.

During one of the senior manager's presentations, he spoke about some of the targets he felt his sales team could achieve in the forthcoming year. Something about what he said just didn't ring true.

During my feedback, I asked him whether he genuinely felt some of the particularly ambitious sales goals were achievable? "No chance" he replied without much hesitation. He felt, however, that he was presenting the type of positive, upbeat and ambitious message he needed to deliver. He just didn't believe all of it himself!

How I picked up such a discrepancy at that point I have no idea. Whether it was tone or body language, I'll never know. But it just didn't feel right to me. 

The manager's intentions were undoubtedly positive. I don't even believe he made a conscious attempt to 'fake it'. He was probably going above and beyond the corporate line with as much enthusiasm as he could.

What if his audience had the same feelings that I had? What impact might that have on morale, or the manager's credibility?

In the end, we managed to reframe his words into a message that he genuinely believed. He was able to deliver an upbeat and aspirational speech that was positively received and believed! It had exactly the right impact.

All of this came from a subtle change of words that allowed him to be fully aligned to his message.

“People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude.” 

-John C Maxell


What does this mean for public speakers?

There's a lot of ingredients that make up how you're message is perceived. These include non-verbal signals.

Don't underestimate the power of your words. You can discover 'the most persuasive words to use when presenting' here.

Your listeners do not have to be experts in body language to pick up messages that just don't seem quite right. They do this unconsciously.

Even the most gifted of speakers can rarely fake it when delivering a message that they don't entirely believe in. If the speaker doesn't fully believe it, why should the audience?

Our job as speakers and influencers is to deliver messages that we genuinely believe. Do that and your tone and body language will flow naturally and congruently. You will come across as genuine, positive, enthusiastic and authentic. Your audience will respond accordingly.

On occasion, that may mean reframing your message slightly to something that you can genuinely believe in. You can still offer aspirational and ambitious messages, use powerful and positive words to describe your products, but you need to believe it as well.

About the Author Paul Lucas

For over 20 years, I’ve been helping leaders, managers and sales teams get better results by improving their communication and influencing skills. My training is founded upon extensive research and analysis. Helping you to understand the specific behaviours, techniques and strategies of the world’s best speakers and influencers provides the platform to transform your presentations and sales skills.

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