How Much of Communication is Nonverbal

How Much of Communication is Really Nonverbal?

If you quickly research what percentage of communication is nonverbal, you’ll run into the same number again and again: 93%. According to many sources, including the New York Times, only 7% of a speaker’s communication is verbal. There’s only one problem with this number: it’s a total misunderstanding of the actual science! If you’re wondering how much of communication is nonverbal, in reality, the answer isn’t all that cut-and-dried. Here are the often-misrepresented facts.

Debunking “the 7% Rule”

First things first: let’s talk through the big misunderstanding, known as “the 7% rule,” that’s been circulating for decades. In a 2011 article, respected science author Philip Yaffe explains the origins of the myth that 7% of communication is verbal, while 93% is nonverbal. The adage started with a misunderstanding of research performed in the 1960s by Professor Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues at UCLA. “When results were published in professional journals in 1967, they were widely circulated across mass media in abbreviated form,” Yaffe explains. “Because the figures were so easy to remember, most people forgot about what they really meant. Hence, the myth that communication is only 7% verbal and 93% nonverbal was born. And we have been suffering from it ever since.” Dr. Mehrabian’s original research consisted of two studies bundled together in one research paper. The paper discusses how much of communication is nonverbal, specifically when people are listening to only one word spoken by a speaker.

Study #1: The Word “Maybe” Pronounced Three Ways

In the first of Dr. Mehrabian’s two studies, participants listened to a recording of a woman’s voice saying the word “maybe” in three ways. The three tones conveyed liking, neutrality, and disliking. At the same time, the subjects looked at photos of the woman’s face expressing those three emotions. Then, researchers asked the people to guess the emotions they could hear in the recorded voice, see in the photos, and then see and hear together. The result was that people correctly identified the emotions 50% more often based on the photos than the voice.

Study #2: Different Words Pronounced Three Ways

In the second study, researchers played nine different recorded words for people in groups of three. Three of the words conveyed “liking” (honey, dear, thanks). Three expressed “neutrality” (maybe, really, oh). The last three conveyed disliking (don’t, brute, terrible). Each time, the speaker pronounced each word three different ways for the listeners. When the listeners guessed which emotions the speaker conveyed, researchers concluded that the tone of voice influenced them more than the words themselves.

The Problem With “the 7% Rule”

Ultimately, when Dr. Mehrabian combined these two studies, he wrapped them into one statistic about what percentage of communication is nonverbal. He said that 7% of the information was gleaned from the word itself, whereas 93% of the information was nonverbal. That nonverbal component included body language (55%) and tone of voice 38%. The problem is that these numbers are relevant only when the speaker is saying just one word. Even then, it’s only relevant in a controlled research setting. In addition, the research itself included only 37 research subjects, all of whom were female psychology majors at the university. That group is neither big nor diverse enough for conclusive science. In reality, things get a lot more complicated when people start composing sentences, speeches, presentations, and other communication that happens in our day-to-day experience. As Timothy Hegstrom wrote in a 1979 paper, Mehrabian’s formula “gives the impression that more is known about the relative contributions of the various channels of communication than in fact is known. It is misleading to use this.” On top of all that, Mehrabian himself published a clarification of his study after the statistic went viral. “Please note,” Dr. Mehrabian wrote, “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.” When you think through this myth with this information, it seems like common sense, right? Once you go beyond a single word, the words become a lot more important. Just try communicating without them, and you’ll soon discover how difficult it is to communicate through nonverbal techniques on their own. Yet, this misinformation is so widespread that in 2007, only 5% of supposedly authoritative websites actually pointed out this fallacy.

No Single Number Describes the Amount of Communication That is Nonverbal

Although much less commonly cited, there’s another researcher who tried to find this out. His name was Ray Birdwistell, and he was the founder of kinesics, a field of study concerned with human movement. Birdwistell believed that between 60% and 70% of human communication is nonverbal. As compelling as it may be, Birdwhistell’s work never picked up much traction in the scientific community. In fact, scientists have cited him only occasionally, and decades of research have failed to confirm his belief in any kind of systematic way. Some peers have criticized him quite severely, writing, “Birdwhistell’s work contains major flaws, and the verdict of other researchers who have tried to develop his theories of kinesics has been damning.” The bottom line is that most likely, there isn’t one single number that describes the amount of communication that is nonverbal.

So, How Much of Communication is Nonverbal, Really?

Despite these points, it’s clear to most people, including scientists, that nonverbal communication is a big part of our lives. For a reliable understanding of nonverbal communication and its value, you can look deeper into studies that show the impact of communicating things using body language.

Gesturing and Body Language

Some of the coolest findings we unearthed surround education. According to several different studies discussed in that article, both children and adults learn better from teachers who use gestures. These studies are specifically oriented around math and foreign language learning, where it’s easy to use simple gestures to help people remember unfamiliar words and concepts. No matter their age, students taught using gestures perform better on tests and generally develop a better grasp of the material they’re learning. A study of TED speakers, watched by hundreds of volunteers, showed that people are more interested in speakers who use gestures. This happens in part because seeing more physical motion helps people pay attention for a longer time. Some research has also suggested that using more gestures makes you come across as more “warm, agreeable, and energetic.” In 2007, researchers found that people are a lot better at identifying your tone of voice if they can also see your gestures. This is yet another finding that supports the importance of visual cues, specifically body language, in communication. As an interesting bonus, using nonverbal communication can also help you, the speaker, do a better job. Research has shown that gesturing while explaining things “lightens your cognitive load” and helps you think through problems as you’re talking. Of course, if you’re feeling more comfortable while communicating, your communication is likely to be more effective. So, that’s another role that nonverbal communication plays, of which most people aren’t aware. Professionals can apply this information to create better webinars, sales pitches, webcasts, and other informational or educational materials. Making the conscious choice to talk with your hands can help you teach and inform other people.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are an important kind of nonverbal communication, and many researchers have studied them. When are facial expressions most important in communication? According to some recent and persuasive research, there are certain situations in which people most commonly use facial expressions to communicate things that people’s words might not contain. One of those is empathy. We want people to know when we empathize with them, and we very often rely on nonverbal communication—specifically facial expressions—to indicate when we “feel for” other people. Also, facial expressions play a major part in our decisions of whom to trust. There are countless studies out there that describe this phenomenon. One of the more interesting ones found here took a game-theoretical approach to explore cooperation. In the study, researchers found that facial expressions made a huge difference in people’s decisions about whether to cooperate or “team up” with others. Willingness to cooperate is one of the core indicators of trust. That paper is a great reference point for the role of facial expressions in nonverbal communication.

Tone of Voice

Similar to facial expressions, reams of research studies demonstrate the role played by your tone of voice. The tone of voice affects perceptions of politeness as well as moods, including anger. In one very intriguing study, researchers looked into the tone of voice of surgeons seeing patients daily. They found that surgeons with malpractice claims in their history had a perceptively different tone of voice than surgeons who had no history of malpractice claims.

Scientifically Supported Nonverbal Communication Techniques

By now, you’re probably convinced that nonverbal communication is important. But practically speaking, which techniques are most useful in business and social settings? There’s some science to help with that, too. Here are a few of the most effective nonverbal communication techniques that you can use to round out your own communication skills, beyond just your words:

Smile, Smile, Smile

If there’s anything that’s almost always a good idea, it’s smiling. Really. As it turns out, there’s a lot of truth to the adage, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” In 2011 research, Scottish scientists found that both men and women were more attracted to people who smiled. Eye contact that accompanied the smile was a big bonus, too. Also, there’s some evidence that people will perceive you as more authentic if you smile slowly.

Don’t Be Afraid to Talk—and Think—With Your Hands

As we discussed at some length above, gestures are great for getting your point across. On top of that, using gestures as a speaker can also help you think through your own points. It alleviates the “cognitive load” associated with speaking, and so it makes you a more natural and relaxed communicator. Researchers have also found that gesturing can make you come across more likable, more memorable, and more interesting. Use that to your advantage! Whether you’re meeting someone one-on-one or giving a public talk, there’s no downside to gesticulating. All it will do is make your energy more contagious and increase your level of charisma.

Avoid Pursing Your Lips

Sucked-in lips are one of the most obvious nonverbal signals of distress. You’ve seen this with politicians or public figures who are in the uncomfortable position of having to apologize or correct themselves. It’s almost like their lips disappear into their face. It’s not something that people do consciously—so, being aware of the tendency to do this will help you seem calmer in a difficult situation.

Watch Other People’s Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal communication isn’t a one-way street: it’s equally important for the speaker and the listener. We know, for example, that teachers are more effective when they pay attention to students’ body language. So, you can use nonverbal communication not only to get your point across but also to become a better listener. Staying aware of other people’s nonverbal signals will help you judge and meet people’s needs, understand where they’re coming from, and forge stronger connections.

Use Your Words—and Your Face, Hands, and Tone, Too

Bottom line: Although there’s no conclusive percentage of how much of communication is nonverbal, there’s no doubt that nonverbal cues matter. Words are only one of many “languages” we all speak. Once you see how all these other kinds of communication come into play, you can start to create a more robust style of communication. You can make yourself more relatable and likable, and you can also “read” other people better. Give it a try on your next video call.

About Sonya T.