The 93% rule and non-verbal communication

In the 1970’s Albert Mehrabian published a book on non-verbal communication called Silent Messages. In it he discussed the findings of 2 studies based on the ability to communicate one word, namely ‘maybe’. In the first study he found that people were able to tell if this word was being said in a neutral, liking or disliking way 55% more easily if they were shown a photo of the person’s expression when saying ‘maybe’. In the second study they were asked to identify the emotion based on the tone of how a set of words was said. People were shown to be influenced by the tone more than the actual word itself. This research led to the 7% or 93% ‘rule’ that 7% of communication is verbal and 93% is non-verbal.


non verbal communication

Is this ‘rule’ valid?

Of course this study done in isolation seems ludicrous to base a rule on but yet in popular culture this is exactly what has happened.

Fast forward a few decades, what is our current understanding of the influence of non-verbal communication and how can this help us for example to become more persuasive during presentations, improve rapport building during a sales visit or just simply grow personal relationships?

Non-verbal communication is a complex set of gestures, voice tone and speed, facial expressions, posture, proxemics and even physiological changes which contribute greatly to how words are interpreted. Indeed at times non-verbal communication can be so distracting that we fail to listen to the words as it becomes more imperative to interpret them quickly.

Much of our non-verbal communication skills are learnt from infancy and can be gender and culturally based. You only have to watch the body language of two very different cultures Japan and Italy to recognise this- although there are also non-verbal consistencies between cultures. That being said as we are now increasingly global in our outlook, cross cultural communication skills, providing we are open to learning become more normal to us.

One stark example is standing in lines. The British and Americans stand in lines; generally speaking it is culturally the done thing. We don’t get too close either (proxemics). If you have queued up for tickets anywhere in Morocco or even France you may notice the opposite, a crowd of people at the counter, all extremely able to jostle into position and think nothing of reserving positions for friends.

So how can you use knowledge of non-verbal communication to help build rapport even in a different culture?

  1. Ensure you have a confident voice full of belief in what you are saying.
  2. Make sure your hand gestures are relaxed, slow and deliberate.
  3. Match your facial expression to your words. If you are ‘pleased to meet someone’ show this on your face. Leave your distractions at home and focus on the now.
  4. Keep confident body posture that is neutral, non-threatening and open and always ensure you are not invasive of personal space.
  5. Maintain a reasonable amount of eye contact (60% or so of the time), too much is threatening and too little is suspect.

This June, ISM Training will be delivering a series of short courses in Dubai, including one on the 93% rule. To learn all about building rapport through non-verbal communications, please call 04 4573814 or email [email protected].

Presentation skills are always difficult to master, they take practice. One tip is to always remember that the audience is your central focus; they are giving up valuable time so you can communicate important information. You may have a well-conceived idea of what you are verbally saying, but do you know what you are saying non-verbally? We all want an engaged audience, whether it is an audience of one or one hundred, so it is vital that you are quickly able to follow the non-verbal clues they give you and adapt your own body language to establish rapport and engage them.

Micro-expressions, can you read them or do you need an emoticon?

One aspect that helps us to be better communicators is mastering the non-verbal clues that we are both giving and receiving. Non-verbal communication includes gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, posture, body movements, touch, space, environmental contexts, physiologic responses (e.g. reddening) and voice tone; inflection or pace . The ability to use these signs to help interpret the flow of a conversation can dramatically improve communication and understanding. When your non-verbal cues are aligned to your verbal message then communication is clearer, more open and also seen as more trustworthy- essential to building a strong business rapport. When you become aware and adept at controlling your own emotions you are able to focus on reading the signs in others. Look for inconsistencies between non-verbal and verbal communications and groupings of non-verbal clues which are all conveying the same overall message. Remember that there will be cultural and generational differences in non-verbal clues so it is difficult to interpret an isolated event and more accurate to look at a group of signals.

Practicing for example some cues that denote confidence seems like a good idea, using strong purposeful gestures, speaking slower with no more than a moderate voice and engaging eye contact with a smile. Even if we master this, however, we might still not be in control of all of our body language. Observation of people helps, start looking around restaurants/ public spaces and interpreting relationships without hearing words. Chances are you will be able to identify defensive postures, lying, disengagement and aggressiveness as well as a myriad of other non-verbal pointers.

Eye contact is used to signal many different intentions and many of us will already know that looking up and to the left is done when recalling a memory and looking up and to the right denotes using your imagination (or possibly lying!). It is again important to establish the normal for each individual by asking base line questions and paying attention to the rest of the non-verbal clues. Moving the feet for example ( check under the table ), over or under emphasis of voice as well as keeping the limbs closer to the body would reinforce a sense someone is lying when appearing in a cluster of behavioural responses. Even the humble knee can give a lot away, watch where it is pointing to find out their subconscious desire, towards the door and away from your business transaction? Of course, it could just be comfort! When we recognise body language we are able to change ours to begin to dictate or steer events towards more successful conclusions. There are few people who do not respond to changes in body language, a smile from you will usually elicit one. Managing your emotions will help to shape/ manage your body language , so always pause and regroup when you are finding it difficult to keep your emotions in check otherwise you will quickly lose rapport with another.