How Powerful Is Nonverbal Communication?

We know nonverbal communication is powerful, but how powerful is it?
We know nonverbal communication is powerful, but how powerful is it? Image Credit: drburtoni

When we are giving a speech, because we understand the importance of public speaking we know that our body is giving a speech of its own. The communication that we have with our audience that does not come out of our mouth is called “nonverbal communication”. One of the biggest questions that every speaker deals with is just exactly how important is this nonverbal communication channel? Do we have to worry about it? Should we just focus on the words that we are saying? Or is our nonverbal communication with our audience an important part of our speech. Is this what we really should be spending our time working on?

What Speakers Get Wrong About Nonverbal Communication

So I think that we can all agree that any communication between a speaker and their audience is important. However, were things tend to get a bit tricky is when we start trying to prioritize how we are communicating with our audience. We believe that the words that are coming out of our mouth are important. However, if our body is also telling our audience a story, then where does that story rank on the scale of importance? In the speaking community there is a well-known claim that only 7 percent of any spoken message is based on verbal communication. The so-called experts are telling us that a full 93 percent of any message is communicated nonverbally. Let us agree that this popular contention is, of course, absolute rubbish.

So just exactly what is going on here? It turns out that the 7-percent formula is endorsed by many professional communication trainers. If we listen to what they are telling us they will say that the 93 percent figure referring to nonverbal communication, 55 percent is through body language and the other 38 percent is through vocal variety or tone of voice. In the past I have attended speaking workshops in which the facilitator emphasized these statistics. My problem with what they were saying was that it seemed as though they were saying that if I stood in front of an audience and spoke in French, as long as my body language and tone of voice were consistent with my message, they would all understand me. These claims are supported by quoting the research done by the eminent psychology professor Albert Mehrabian.

What The Research Tells Us

I think that as speakers, we can all agree that there is an importance to body language. Its power comes from the fact that it can bring your presentation to life with fitting gestures and inspired stagecraft. However, the big question revolves around the 93 percent number. It turns out that yes, experiments were conducted by Albert Mehrabian who is currently professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. However, the research in question was done in 1967, using a single word at a time to gauge what the listener believed to be the feeling of the speaker, and to determine if the listener liked the speaker.

It turns out that the experiment was never intended to measure how well the listeners understood what the speaker was trying to communicate. Dr. Mehrabian has published his work and his findings in the book “Silent Messages”. On his website, Dr. Mehrabian states that: “Silent Messages contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues).” So it turns out that the professor now says his findings have been misquoted. He is uncomfortable about misquotes of his work. From the very beginning he tried to give people the correct limitations of his findings. Unfortunately, the modern field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners who have very little psychological expertise. As speakers we need to learn to not swallow what some people call “facts” without careful examination of how the so-called facts were obtained, especially the ones that on the surface seem unintuitive.

As speakers, we need to set the record right. Let’s take the time to challenge the experts who rely on unsubstantiated statistics or use them in ways they were never intended to be used. We need to understand that when we want to communicate with an audience we need to make use of all of the communication tools that we have available. We also have to understand that none of these tools is going to shut out any of the other tools – they all matter.

What All Of This Means For You

As speakers, we want to maximize the benefits of public speaking and for every speech that we give to be a success. We judge a speech’s success by what kind of impact it has on our audience. If we are able to connect with our audience and get our point across, then we will feel that the speech has been a success. It turns out that when we are giving a speech, our body is also talking with our audience. The big question that we face as speakers is determining which message is more important: the one that is coming out of our mouth or the one that our body is telling.

One of the biggest challenges that we face when trying to determine the impact of our nonverbal communication is just how much of an impact does it have on our audience? If you ask around, you’ll soon discover that many people believe that only 7 percent of any spoken message is based on verbal communication – the rest is communicated through nonverbal communication. If we take the time to look into this statement we quickly discover that it is based on research that was done by Dr. Albert Mehrabian. This research was never intended to measure how well the listeners understood what the speaker was trying to communicate. This means that yes, nonverbal communication is important, but no, it’s not that important.

As speakers, our goal during a speech is to connect with our audience and communicate as much information to them as we can. We believe that our words are important. However, the nonverbal communication that we have with our audience during our speech is also important. However, we need to understand how our audience will receive our message. The answer is that the words that we say will have the biggest impact. We need to manage all of the channels that we use to communicate with our audience, but we need to pick our words carefully.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that a speaker can control their nonverbal communication?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Every time that we give a speech, we have an opportunity to grow as a speaker. However, too many of us don’t take advantage of this opportunity to use the importance of public speaking. We create a speech, practice it, deliver it, and then move on with our lives. When this happens we are missing an opportunity to use the speech that we gave to become a better speaker. However, knowing that we can become a better speaker is only part of what we need to know, we also have to know how to use the experience of giving a speech to become better.