Non-Verbal Communication – Getting Your Message Across

As you know, it’s not just what you say that matters, it’s the way that you say it!

With so much written about interpreting body language, how are you supposed to know what’s right?


Professor Albert Mehrabian's research provides the basis for the widely quoted and over-simplified statistic for the impact of spoken communication:

– 7% is communicated in the words that are spoken
– 38% is communicated in the way that the words are said
– 55% is communicated in facial expression (this is often interpreted more widely to include body language generally, e.g. Gestures, body position etc.)


The Mehrabian formula was established in situations that relate only to the communication of feelings and attitudes where there was incongruence between words and facial expression. In Mehrabian's research, people tended to believe the facial expression they saw, not the words spoken. For example, if someone asks another “How was your day darling?” and they reply “Fine!” through the tone of voice and facial expression we can determine that their day was anything but fine.

The value of Mehrabian's theory relates to communication where emotional content is significant and this is often applicable in business, where motivation and attitude have an effect on outcomes.

I look at the impact of non-verbals, voice and facial expression, from two perspectives:

– Having more impact when you are speaking
– Reading the non-verbal signs when others are speaking

1. Having more impact when you are speaking


The message of the Mehrabian study is that how you say something is more important than what you say. That’s not to say you can talk gibberish, but it is worth spending time ensuring that your message is enhanced by non-verbal messages. The aim is to be congruent: words, voice and facial expression should all be conveying the same message so that the audience is in no doubt of your commitment and belief. Whilst you can make deliberate attempts to manage your voice and facial expression, this is likely to result in incongruence. It’s better that you spend time connecting with the purpose and intention of your communication so that your voice and facial expression naturally follow. Often, middle managers are asked to convey, perhaps via team briefings, the intentions of senior management. Often, the problem is that they will convey these intentions without the personal belief and this leaks out through incongruence in their voice and facial expression.

The main message here is: take time to really understand what you are saying and build your own commitment to it. If necessary, question it until you really understand, and believe, the purpose of the communication.

2. Reading the signs when others are speaking

There are many books written on the art of interpreting body language and Alan Pease’s is a classic. Reading these signs is a complex science and it’s helpful to work with some more fundamental guidelines, of which I believe there are two.

Firstly, you are looking for incongruence, when the voice and facial expression don’t match the words that are spoken. For example, when someone takes an action from a meeting and says “I’ll try to do that” with a weak voice, no eye contact and a pained expression on their face, you’re unlikely to be convinced that they will!

Secondly, you are looking for shifts, or changes, in voice and facial expression/body language rather than generalisations. As you gain someone’s interest and commitment, they will generally make more eye contact, open their body language and lean towards you. As you lose someone’s interest and commitment, they will generally make less eye contact, close their body language and move away from you. Noticing these shifts, or changes, is key to being able to respond appropriately and ensure interest and commitment are maintained.

Generalisations, on the other hand, can be unreliable. For example, I was once faced with a whole group who had their arms crossed and stern expressions on their faces. Thinking they were being defensive (the traditional interpretation of arms crossed), I asked them what was wrong? They said “It’s cold, please would you turn the air conditioning down.”

The main message here is non-verbal communication is a big clue that may be evident long before you get a verbal “yes” or “no” (which you may never get anyway as people are often polite or agreeable regardless of their intention). Noticing the incongruence and shifts is one thing, doing something about them is another! If the other person is losing interest then, perhaps, ask them a question or challenge them in some way, but at least do something different! If the other person is demonstrating interest then this could be the time to gain their commitment.

So, to summarise, in business, paying attention to the non-verbals are helpful to:

1. ensure we have more impact when we’re speaking
2. understand another person’s level of interest and commitment to our ideas and act upon it.

What do you notice about non-verbal communication? How does it help or hinder you when communicating in business? What other thoughts do you have on the use of non-verbals? We’d love to hear your comments, as everyone seems to have a view on the Merhabian Myth (as it’s often called)! Please feel free to leave your thoughts below.

Next month, look out for Getting Agreement.

Posted by Mark Procter

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