Wednesday, September 15, 2010

If the Mehrabian myth was true...

You probably have seen a pie chart like the one above accompanying an explanation that research (or science) has shown what a large percent of your message is conveyed by body language (55%), rather than by tone of voice (38%) or mere words (7%). Last month Max Atkinson blogged about how:

“....If true, for example, it would mean that anyone who is unable to see a speaker’s facial expressions, whether because they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio or talking to someone on the telephone, would only be able to understand 45% of what was said to them.”

Since less than half the message was conveyed, both those inventions (and the phonograph) would have failed miserably. Consider this alternate Bizarro history:

1. Alexander Graham Bell found that no one was interested in using his 1876 telephone. He went back to working on speech and hearing, and died in obscurity. Live personal communication finally became popular a century later with the fiber optic networks and Picturephones.

2. Thomas Alva Edison had hoped that his 1877 phonograph would be used both for dictating correspondence and recording famous speeches. Instead it only found a pathetically tiny niche market as a novelty for amusing dogs. Later Edison lamented that the phonograph was the dumbest idea he’d had since his first patent for a vote recorder.

3. In 1920 commercial radio broadcasting also failed. The publicity photo of a girl listening to a story remained just a dream. Radio only found a minuscule market for delivering instrumental music at funeral parlors. Network broadcasting had to wait another quarter century for television to be perfected.

That improper generalization of how oral communication works has already been debunked in magazine articles, in Wikipedia, and in a hilarious video.

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