When Body Language Is Not That Important

There’s this myth “out there” that body language is more important than your words in conveying a message. I recently heard this myth reinforced by a speech pathologist and public speaking coach, who proclaimed on a podcast available through her website that there is a “well-known statistic out there by [sic] behavioural psychologist Dr. Mehrabian” regarding information presented to groups.

She then went on to state that Dr. Mehrabian had found that delivery and body language follow the rule of 55% of communication of meaning being visual, 38% being determined by the tone and delivery and only 7% by the words themselves.

That would be fascinating and extremely useful – if any of it were true. What is wrong with the contention that this coach and many others make that Mehrabian discovered that it’s not what you say, but how you say it that is most important?

  1.  Dr. Albert Mehrabian never studied people speaking to groups in a public speaking/presenting situation, as the references to his work suggest. Mehrabian studied people who were mostly not conversing but a) listening to single isolated words in a lab setting, in order to discriminate positive or negative emotions, and b) examination in a lab setting of black and white photographs accompanied by tape recordings in order to determine contributions of differing communication inputs.  Neither of these situations is generalizable to conversations, public speaking or presenting or any other host of real-world situations.
  2.  Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 formula was based on combining the results – at a guess – of the two studies just mentioned. That is not a finding, not a statistic, but a postulation. There never was any proof.

Undoubtedly tone, intonation, dynamics, body language and facial expression all send a message that influences the interpretation of our language. But to contend that it is the primary means of communication is illegitimate – just ask my daughter’s speech therapist. My youngest daughter communicates primarily through limited gestures, indistinct sounds and facial expression. And it is extremely difficult to understand her without words! When she uses the few at her command, it is the difference between night and day.

Why do people continue to perpetuate this myth? Perhaps it’s a lack of understanding of how research is generated and conducted. Perhaps it is a case of merely accepting the prevailing point of view. Or perhaps it is easier to focus on these other behaviours – it’s not as difficult or demanding as generating ideas, refining them, considering word choice for your audience and speaking in a way that combines intellect with passion and emotion in a coherent and persuasive manner. Some coaches and speakers often seem to thrive instead on “Say it louder” and “Put your hands here”, rather than the deeper meaning and connection you have with your audience. That’s why we have such a paucity of authentic, powerful speakers in the public arena.

"Perhaps it is easier to focus on these other behaviours – it’s not as difficult or demanding as generating ideas, refining them, considering word choice for your audience and speaking in a way that combines intellect with passion and emotion in a coherent and persuasive manner."

There’s a very simple way to test this body language myth: try acting out Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the words. Surely you can get 93% of the meaning across without all that wordy stuff?! (Need I be more facetious?)

Mehrabian himself decries the misuse of his studies by people who have misconstrued his findings and theories. (You can visit his website at www.kaaj.com/psych for some basic comments.) He points out that his studies were concerned very specifically with like and dislike, varieties of attitudes, not core meaning. In other words, the nuances can be affected and sometimes contrary body language and facial expressions can convey an outright contradiction to the words. Thus, pulling a sad face while speaking happy words may mean that I am being ironic, sarcastic or conflicted.

You may have equally seen Hamlet performed by an actor using different tone and posture and thus making you think of the meaning slightly differently than you had before. But Shakespeare also deliberately wrote with some ambiguity of meaning. The actors’ cues, their relationship in space, their actions on stage all help the audience to understand the director’s take on the meaning. However, the non-verbal communication cannot replace the language itself, except to a very limited extent. And this is what Mehrabian found: when there is ambiguity or lack of context, the non-verbal aspects contribute significantly to our perception of attitude, deception and inconsistency.

Be careful of coaches who say that if you have just the right combination of body language and dynamics that you will magically transform your audience’s responses – the quality of your ideas, character and integrity will count for far more. The old phrase, “Your actions speak louder than words” is true. But your words should also strive to reflect your good actions.

Instead of focusing on all the externals: where you stand, how you are oriented, what your face is doing, focus first on the internals – your ideas and proofs; your motivations, values and goals; language that denotes, connotes and emotes; meaning-rich language that connects with your audience. Then you can deliver it in a way that reinforces, but does not replace, your message.

- Peter J. McLean

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Peter J. McLean, B.A., PG Dip. Ed., Ct.IV TAA, M.Ed./Ph.D.(candidate)

Creator of the Authentic Speaking®* system, Peter McLean is a highly experienced and inspiring public speaker and coach who knows what it takes to grow as a speaker.

Peter has coached scores of senior managers, executives, Managing Directors and CEOs to help them become confident and powerful communicators.

As a young man, Peter was shy and lacked confidence in social and public situations. He joined local public speaking clubs in Perth to build his confidence and first started to learn his craft there. After working for private industry, he left his home town of Perth and undertook his first degree at University in the United States, taking advantage of unique courses in Public Speaking over a four-year period, during which he won university-wide acclaim in Public Speaking and was appointed as a public representative of the University. His development as a speaker has helped him build a highly successful career as a professional and a leader.


"You [were] passionate about public speaking, it was “hands on”, you were personable and engaging. . . . It was lovely to meet you and thank you again for a brilliant workshop" - Christina Camacho, Client Services Manager, WestScheme

Peter’s formal training includes studies in psychology and education, focusing on communication and on cognitive, behavioural and developmental aspects of learning.  He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Australia, studying the nature and impact of gifted teachers.  He is a passionate teacher who will help you to achieve your potential.

Peter is the co-founder and currently Managing Director of Lamplighter Performance Consulting, a company committed to the empowering the performance of individuals and organisations.

Based on over 20 years of research and experience in public speaking and training, Peter has developed the Authentic Speaking® system to help you to grow in your ability to impact others.

"I learned more in one day from your course than I did from all the other presentation courses I've attended combined!" - Bindi Allan, Client Services Manager, WestScheme


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