July 20, 2009

The Mehrabian Myth

About three years ago I blogged about the terrible abuse of Prof. Mehrabian's infamous formula (7% words, 38% tone of voice, 55% body language), and have been hammering it in my workshops ever since.  Last month, Olivia Mitchell started a campaign to bust this Mehrabian myth.  

Now Martin Shovel, of CreativityWorks, in another excellent example of a video Ballroom style presentation, provides a humorous send up of the whole thing:


5 Responses to The Mehrabian Myth

  1. Jeff Hurt says:

    As a professional educator by trade that now plans education and events for a national nonprofit, I’m one that was taught the Mehrabian Myth in universities and post-graduate classes. I attended plenty of “train the trainer” classes in the 1980’s and 1990’s that taught that delivery was as important as content. I understand that what I was taught was taken out of context.
    Here’s where I struggle. First, some background. I’ve hired more than 2,500 professional speakers in the past 10+ years for audience sizes of 20 to 12,000 to 20,000+. I consider myself very skilled at finding the right presenters that will resonate with my audiences and be well received. [My salary used to be based on the audiences evaluations of these presenters. That will drive you to find the right match.]
    The struggle: I’ve watched audiences reject presenters repeatedly who had great words and content but had poor delivery skills. And I’ve experienced presenters who had “fluff” or very little content that wowed an audience with great delivery skills.
    The video above says that delivery is not as important as words. So is it less important, equally important, or what? I’ve yet to see a post that balances the need for content and delivery skills and I’m tired of seeing people with great content fail because they don’t have good delivery skills.
    What are your thoughts Andrew?

  2. First of all, Brilliant video! If you put it on silent, maybe you could figure it out too! Ok, good humour without context is considered sarcasm. So let’s look at that: CONTEXT
    I myself am a Communications trainer who is also well traveled. I tend to agree with Mehrabian that one can get a lot of information via body language but even more so, his percentages best apply when that person is communicating in a dialogue- not lecture style. E.T. Hall’s theory of High and Low Context communicators posits that not everyone would be as easy to read simply because of the relative ways people communicate.ie. Men vs Women and Latino vs. Scandinavian.
    Expertise matters always and still passion about that expertise sells double.

  3. Andrew Abela says:

    Responding to Jeff’s comment, this is another example where the distinction between Ballroom style and Conference Room style presentations really matters. In a Ballroom style presentation, where you’re trying to inform or entertain a large audience–and where your appeal to their emotions tends to matter more–then delivery skills are important. It’s possible to have no useful content and still be highly entertaining in such a context: think of stand up comedians, or most politicians.
    In a Conference Room style presentation, however, where you’re presenting to a small group and trying to persuade them to do something or agree to something: buy your product, accept your proposal, fund your idea, etc. (which is what most day to day presentations are about) then content is far more important than delivery.

  4. Mark Finney says:

    This is great to know, but the logical conclusion is not just that Mehrabian’s number are irrelevant but rather that we don’t know what the relationship is between communicative power and things such as voice, style, words and so on. If Mehrabian’s data doesn’t apply for non-emotive communication – then what are the correct numbers? Has this work been studied?

  5. Graham Young says:

    I totally agree that Mehrabian’s %s have been misused and abused far too long, but surely the real point is that all three aspects the verbal,the vocal and the visual all matter. The most imnportant thing is that they are all in-sync with each other, and that they are all part of the presentation. Good words, great visuals and a monotone delivery, doesn’t work! Good words, good delivery but slides full of bullet points doesn’t work! Reciting nursery rhymes to CEO’s never made them buy your product, no matter how emotionally you do it. People usually tell that someone is lieing through their tone of voice, or because of their lack of eye contact and body language.
    To give an effective presentation you must have the right words, said with the right emotion, backed up by positive bodylanguage and hopefully some good visual aids.

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