You’ve heard the elements of communication are body language (55%), tone of voice (35%), and words (10%)? Who hasn’t?

The above was based on a study done in 1967 and became very popular in the 1970’s. Body language ended up with star billing and its fan club continues today. That’s unfortunate because it doesn’t particularly deserve the center stage.

Several years ago, a skeptical friend of mine dug into the original research that started this craze and found a bunch of problems with the concepts and the statistics, especially. Here’s the scoop:

Research Study #1 and #2

The original research was done in two studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1967. The first study, by Mehrabian and Weiner, investigated the inference of emotion from verbiage (actual words), versus tone (variations of pitch and stress).

They used single negative, positive, or neutral words presented in different tone and evaluated the effects. For example: If the negative word, “terrible,” is said in a happy upbeat tone, will the speaker’s emotion be judged as negative or positive?

The results of the study indicated that when words and tone are inconsistent, judgment of emotion is based primarily on tone. This is where the idea that tone has more impact than words comes from.

The second study, by Mehrabian and Ferris, looked at the inference of emotion (or attitude) from tone and facial expression when the single neutral word “maybe” was spoken.

The results of the second study indicated that emotion is communicated by both facial expression and tone, but facial expression has more influence. Since facial expression is body language…a star was born.

Problems galore

Now for the problems with the studies; which the authors readily acknowledged at the time:

  • Each study used a very small number of subjects (30 and 20, respectively). This means the studies cannot be said to be valid. That’s strike one.
  • The first study used only single words, spoken by two different females on tape. The second study also used just one word spoken by three different females on tape, and photographs of a facial expression. Strike two for validity.
  • Strike three is not the fault of the studies or their authors. The first study did indeed include the statistics you see above. But NOT in the ways they have been used since. (Actually, the study’s figures were messed-with: they were 55, 38, 7.)

So why do we still believe it?

What keeps the body language myth alive (aside from ignorance of the details) is that our experience validates that tone and facial expression affect meaning and message. We call that “empirical” evidence. In addition, the years since have added lots more studies–most of them far more valid. For example, studies show:

  • Facial expression – body language – does tell us a lot. Many people can correctly identify another person’s attitude or emotion from a photograph showing just eyes and forehead! (And many people with challenges such as autism cannot.)
  • Tone can mean more than the words themselves. Newborn babies turn their head toward the sound of their mother’s voice, as long as Mom is speaking with a high tone. Their second favorite tone is also high-pitched and female. In contrast, newborns tend to react negatively to low tone of voice, even from Mom. (All of this may be due to higher tones carrying through to the womb and therefore being more familiar. Now we know where all that high-pitched baby talk comes from, too.)
  • People all over the world learn to use certain tones to convey different meanings to the same word. For example, think about what tone does for the word “interesting.”

This list could go on and it’s pretty interesting stuff. And if you could hear me say that, you’d know what I mean by “interesting.”

What this means for sales and service

Toss the specific percentages into the trash because humans vary too much; especially when you deal with them one by one.

Yes, you may easily read very subtle body language and tone. However, when you encounter people in the real world, what you see and hear may not be all about the conversation you’re having.

A prospect or customer may sound annoyed when you reach them on the phone, but that annoyance may have nothing to do with you. Same goes for people who sound very upbeat and happy.

Do not let tone of voice drive what you do. Apply the consultative approach, including asking permission to continue with the call, and go from there.

When talking with prospects or customers in person, you may think you’re seeing all kinds of messages. Again, that may not be about the conversation you’re having. That’s especially true these days because so many people are ‘multi-tasking’ and easily distracted even when meeting face-to-face.

Do not let body language, including facial expression, drive what you do. Ask questions, uncover concerns and deal with them, and ask for the business or for the next step.

There are other things sales and service reps can do to strengthen the messages they are sending. Here are just two:

Your mother was right–you’ll feel better if you smile. And you’ll sound better, too.

Because we learn to use tone, we can learn to sound confident and relaxed even when we don’t completely feel that way: Use your own words, and practice. The extra cool thing about this approach is that by using it you will soon enough actually feel confident and relaxed.