Does What You Actually Say Matter as Much as How You Look?

There is a famous study by a UCLA professor named Albert Mehrabian that says that 93 percent of the impression that you make when you speak is based on how you look and how you sound.  Many people in the public speaking business love to point out that, according to the study, only seven percent of the impression that you make is based on what you say.

Like many scientific studies, this study has been widely misinterpreted. I read Lisa Braithwaite’s blog “Speak Schmeak” this weekend and was delighted to find a public speaking coach that agrees with me that the study has been widely misinterpreted.  Braithwaite points out that 

Mehrabian was studying incongruent verbal and nonverbal communication when a person is expressing feelings. He looked at how subjects responded to images with different facial expressions and recordings of a voice saying a single word with different inflections conveying like, dislike and neutral emotion.

Here’s what Mehrabian says about his research being applied outside of the parameters in which he intended it: 

“Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

The point is that the study only applies to situations where people are discussing feelings and attitudes, not business presentations.  Of course what we say during a business presentation is important.  Far more important than 7 percent.

With that said, I still like to reference the study.  But I’m always careful to point out that the study can’t be cited for the fact that what you say isn’t that important. But I do think the study highlights the general idea that how we look and sound does matter. Even in business presentations, we need to pay attention to how we look and how we sound.  People judge us on an emotional level. 

I don’t need a study to tell me that.

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