The Importance Of Verbal Vs Non-verbal Communication

All sorts of figures are bandied about but back the 1970s a researcher called Albert Mehrabian conducted a study that has become the seminal – and most often quoted – piece of work on verbal vs. non-verbal communication cues in the way we exchange information.

The numbers 7, 38 and 55 are therefore often referred to as the standard for representing the importance of non-verbal communication vs verbal communication.

Verbal vs. non-verbal communication

The significance of 7, 38 and 55

So – what do these numbers actually mean?

They mean that out of 100% (which represents a person’s entire interpretation of what another person has said):

7% refers to the weight carried by the actual words being spoken.

38% represents the tone with which the words are expressed.

55% represents the body language of the speaker.

Yep, you read that right: a whopping 55% percent of what people think we’re saying is not in our words, but in non-verbal communication. That is: what we do with our bodies while we’re saying it.

55% of your #communication is wrapped up in your #bodylanguage. Click To Tweet

Let’s add a phone into the mix

So what happens to the balance of verbal vs non-verbal communication when you substitute the face-to-face conversation for a phone call or an email?

Obviously body language is completely missing from the conversation, so would it then be fair to assume that 55% of the meaning disappears as well? Or even worse, does it mean that 55% of the understanding among your audience disappears?

That would be an enormous assumption to make but it’s definitely fair to conclude that on the phone, tone of voice assumes a greater importance. Research conducted by Kristen Bell at Drexel University quotes Fenman Ltd. – a global publisher of training resources – as saying that within a call centre “tone accounts for 86% of the total communication, and words account for the remaining 14%”.

This essentially shifts most of the 55% previously allocated to body language into the tone rather than the actual words.

Tone makes up 86% of your message when you speak on the phone. Click To Tweet

Taking voice out of the equation

Written communication, unlike face-to-face, phone-based, or computer-enabled communication such as video conferencing, doesn’t benefit from tone cues or other elements of non-verbal communication. As a result, understanding (or misunderstanding!) is based on choice of words, semantics and syntax (how words and/or symbols are assembled). Even the way sentences are constructed affects the interpretation of the words that are assembled.

According to the book Contemporary Business Communication, “Tone in writing refers to the writer’s attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as one’s tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges”. In the online writing tutorial Setting the Tone, the author states that “Just as the pitch and volume of one’s voice carries attitude and tone at parties and meetings, the choice of words and the way we put our sentences together convey a sense of attitude and tone in our writing.

On writing ‘a quick email’…

The truth is: for important messages, there is no such thing as a ‘quick email’. Relying only on writing to get your point across – especially when writing isn’t your strongest point or you have limited patience for crafting and re-crafting a message – can be a minefield. As most of us know, even if we want to draw attention to a particular paragraph, selecting all caps or bold may be interpreted as shouting, screaming, or aggression. And resorting to changes in font size, type or colour to emphasise your point can create confusion if the reader doesn’t understand the meaning or intention behind the changes.

When the message is important, there's no such thing as a 'quick email'. Click To Tweet

Avoiding misinterpretation of the (digitally) written word

In response to all the angst created by misguided stints behind a keyboard, a bright spark called Scott Fahlman created the first ever emoticon: the smiley face 🙂

As Fahlman notes in his blog, the original aim of the emoticon was a straightforward one: to allow users on the university’s bulletin boards to highlight posts that were meant to be humorous or sarcastic, but that might otherwise be misconstrued as serious – i.e. to add ‘tone’ to the writing. He never expected his typographical innovation to take off (or, I suspect, he’d have had a red hot go at getting it trademarked!) but taken off it has, to the point where Googling the word ‘emoticon’ will now return no less than 518,000,000 results. The Wikipedia entry on the subject runs to almost 6,000 words. That’s a whole lot of writing about something that was supposed to make writing less taxing 😉

In addition to emoticons, countless guides have been published on the subject of internet etiquette (or ‘netiquette’, as it’s cutely known) which advise many techniques, including the very simple ‘write as you would like to be written to’. One of the guides researched for the purposes of writing this blog post advised limiting use of emoticons, which I must say left me very conflicted.

So, where to from here?

As I’m sure you’ve realised, there’s just no getting away from the fact that larger and larger portions of our interactions with other people now happen remotely – especially when connected with our work. Today, 30 % of Australians and 34% of Americans are freelancers, with that figure likely to be 50% by 2020. The notion of working in an office from nine to five is quickly being replaced by the new digital workplace, which can be anywhere workers choose to hang their hats. This means that our colleagues are almost as likely to be interstate or overseas as at the next desk. It also means that we need to get a whole lot better at communicating non-verbally – which of course means digitally.

After reading pretty much every guide published on netiquette, we’ve managed to confidently distill the rules down to 10 basic points.

1) Use the subject line properly to state your business.
2) Don’t CC the world. Just the people who really need to know.
3) Never trust auto-correct entirely.
4) By all means, use emoticons, but;
   a) Don’t overdo it
   b) Don’t do it in serious business correspondence
   c) Stick to the widely recognised ones.
5) Google before you tweet is the new version of ‘think before you speak’.
6) Keep your writing clear and succinct
7) Don’t forward anything that was sent to you in confidence
8) Keep file sizes of attachments small
9) Try to reply to anything that requires a response within 24 hours, even if it’s just to acknowledge that the message was received.
10) And of course, avoid typing full words in capitals.

Here are the ten commandments of internet etiquette. Click To Tweet

About Blrt

Blrt helps you get your point across quickly by allowing you to talk, point and draw over images, documents and websites. The resulting video-like recording is called a Blrt.

Your Blrts require much less bandwidth than video and can be shared with anyone on mobile or desktop. This makes Blrt ideal for both collaboration and the creation and sharing of dynamic content, as public Blrts can be embedded into any webpage.

Once recorded, Blrts are stored in the cloud and are exchanged with others in a conversation-like fashion. A record is kept of the exchange, and new parties and media can be added at any time.

Blrt shifts time and place, allowing users in a conversation to participate in their own time. In an era where activity-based working and distributed teams are commonplace, Blrt is revolutionising the way people interact to get things done.

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