Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bullfighting the Mehrabian Myth

If you have been reading about public speaking, or sales, or other topics involving communication, then you probably have seen a bar or pie chart similar to the one shown above. Or, perhaps it just was a table or some text. Typically this startlingly specific information about the primary importance of nonverbal communication will be presented as revealed wisdom (“experts say”).

Sometimes the source will be credited properly to Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA. Those three percentages often are discussed as if 42 years ago they were carved magically onto stone tablets, and then carried over the Sepulveda Pass to Westwood. For a recent example, see page 10 of Brian Tracy’s 2008 book Speak to Win which you can view over at Google Books.

On a June 2, 2009 blog post Olivia Mitchell discussed Why The Stickiest Idea in Presenting is Just Plain Wrong. She pointed out that Mehrabian’s results apply to some narrow situations, but have been treated as universal truth. I applaud her stepping up as the matador in this bullfight. Her post links to 19 other recent posts discussing why the popular interpretation is just a myth.

Mehrabian has even said on his web site to:
“Please note 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. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages -- these are the original sources of my findings”.

I got curious, followed some of Olivia Mitchell’s links, and found that this topic has been kicking around for a long time. Back in 1994 (or 15 years ago) Dr. C. E. "Buzz" Johnson wrote about the Myth of Nonverbal Dominance. In 1999 (10 years ago) Herb Oestreich discussed Let’s Dump the 55% 38% 7% Rule. In 2004 (5 years ago) Dale H. Emery wrote about Misrepresenting Mehrabian.

The recent flurry of blog posts is unlikely to finish this bullfight. There are plenty of books, newsletters, and blog posts repeating the myth. It will be read again and spread again to a fresh crop of uncritical readers. We probably can look forward to yet another decade of miscommunication about this aspect of communication. Get out your capes and swords, and bring on the bulls!

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