Public Speaking: The Verbal & Non-Verbal

Mehrabians Rule

Public speaking is all about organized communication to a group to persuade, inspire or influence. It follow the same fundamental skills that any other communication task requires. It demands we are on point with our content, use proper body language and relevant body language. Any incongruence in our message on our body language, voice or verbal message will cause our audience to immediately doubt our message. Audiences’ would doubt us in these occasions because we have one of the top 3 aspects of our message out of sync with our speech, presentation or communication.

Public Speaking & Mehrabian’s Research

Psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s did groundbreaking research on human communication. His research focused on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages in human communication. He found what is now used as a truism or rule in the world of public speaking. Mehrabian’s general rule on the relative importance of visual (our body language), vocal (our voice and how we use it) and the content (the words we use). His scientific studies showed the a hierarchy of importance in human communications as detailed below:

Mehrabian’s Rule

  • 55% = Visual – Your Body Language
  • 38% = Vocal – Your Voice
  • 7% = Verbal – Words you use

This research is often erroneously misinterpreted as a call to use copious body language and voice tone beyond all else but this is a myopic understanding of the research. It is important to note that Mehrabian highlights that his studies pointed to these 3 communication attributes are important but what is even more important is that one’s communication is congruent across all 3, body language, voice/tone, and verbal.

Congruence Is Key

Many public speaking coaches fail to understand what this research actually represents. Albert Mehrabian himself has clarified this research isn’t singularly about any single aspect of human communication being of greater importance than another but instead about congruence. Congruence is the notion of the message matching on both verbal, non-verbal and content. For example if you are speaking to a executive about your new strategic plan while doing the following:

Incongruence in Action

Visual/Body Language – Hold your head low, cross your arms and look away.
Vocal/Tone – Your tone is upspeak/HRI (High Rising Intonation) and points to your lack of confidence.
Verbal/Words – You say – This plan may will work.

In this scenario it is clear that your verbal, non-verbal and chosen words are not all in alignment. As a result any audience member would key in on the fact that you don’t believe in your plan because any one of these variables isn’t correct. Congruence in action would look something like the following:

Congruence in Action

Visual/Body Language – Hold your head up, open stance, palms up and making eye contact w/ audience.
Vocal/Tone – Your tone is positive and firm and speaks to your confidence.
Verbal/Words – You say – We will deliver the results outlined in our strategic plan.

In this scenario it is clear that your verbal, non-verbal and chosen words are in alignment. As a result leadership will most likely be persuaded by your communication and endorse your plan.

Takeaway Mehrabian Rule

What people ought to take away from his research is:

  • Communication isn’t just about the words we say but also the non-verbal or body language we use.
  • Body language is a vital aspect to effective presentations and speeches. Your body speaks volumes to an audience, therefore your body language should match up with your content.
  • The verbal aspect of communication cannot be ignored. The way we use our voice adds much value to the content itself. Effective use of our voice can amplify our message making us ever more effective.
  • No single aspect of these attributes alone is critical but all of them together yield better speeches, communications and presentations.
  • Congruence among all of these facets is critical. All 3 (among others) of these communication aspects should be in alignment with our message as I outlined above.

Beyond Mehrabian

Is Mehrabian the end of the study of the field of verbal and non-verbal communication. Most definitely not. Many continue to explore this field and offer great insights for budding speakers. In later blog posts we will explore more recent research in body language, verbal and non-verbal communication.
However, his research does make a very good point about the key aspects of human communication and the immutable notion of congruence.

Wishing you luck in your speaking endeavors!

Joseph Guarino is a professional public speaker, trainer and owner of the Institute of Public Speaking a Boston based international public speaking & leadership training organization. As a seasoned public speaking trainer & professional speaker he enjoys helping other succeed in this worthy and rewarding craft. The Institute of Public Speaking offers a variety of public speaking courses for individuals (1 on 1 training), executive speech coaching, one day public speaking bootcamps, advanced public speaking bootcamps and public speaking seminars for corporations & groups of any size.
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