The Myth that Verbal and Visual Communication are More Important than Words

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The popular but erroneous claim spouted by speakers (and some organizations) that body language and the sound of your voice is more important than words (to the tune of 93%)  misinterprets the findings of the original studies conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian.

According to Mehrabian[1], the three elements (words, tone, body language) account differently for our liking for the person who puts forward a message concerning their feelings: words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% of the liking. They are often abbreviated as the “3 Vs” for Verbal, Vocal & Visual.

This 7/38/55% Rule has been misinterpreted as applying to all communication. It’s just not true.

Our actions or visual clues take precedence over words ONLY when the two are sending different messages when someone is speaking about feelings.  If I verbally agree with you while looking away and shrugging you might realize I’m not true to my words even though you heard me agree.

If the 3 elements  did apply to all communication, well, we wouldn’t need words  much would we? It would be akin to living in a silent movie without the captions. But, I ask you to spend some time watching a movie with the sound off (no captions) and see just how long you’ll be able to follow the story (and get it right.)

So are words important? You bet.

A single word can change a life. Words can make marriages and break marriages. Words can inform, educate and direct.  They can soothe, console and convey sympathy. They can inspire and spark our imagination.  Words cause pain, elation, anger, hope, and disappointment.

Yes, all three communication elements add to our message. Words alone without tone have caused untold misunderstandings. Consider email. The receiver often adds the tone and just as often gets it wrong!

Ultimately, all the elements need to send a congruent message if we want the interpretation to be as we intended.


To learn more, pick up a copy of Misunderstood! The Fast Guide to Communicating at Work–what to Say, How to Say It and When to Shut Up.

^ a b Mehrabian, Albert (1971). Silent Messages (1st ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. ISBN 0-534-00910-7.


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