Misunderstanding Mehrabian

One of the first things that you’re taught in communications planning 1.0.1 is that how you say something is as important, if not more important, than what you say.

Various linguistic, anthropological and sociological references are used (depending on at which agency you work, and who you speak to) to support this notion, however one that crops up almost everywhere is Albert Mehrabian‘s communication study.

In a nutshell, Professor M. argued that there are basically three elements in any face-to-face communication:

  • words,
  • tone of voice
  • body language

These three elements account differently for the meaning of the message: words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% of the message.

For effective and meaningful communication, these three parts of the message need to support each other in meaning – they have to be “congruent”. In case of any “incongruency”, the receiver of the message might be irritated by two messages coming from two different channels, giving cues in two different directions. (Source: Wikipedia / www.kaaj.com/psych)

So, in effect, 93% of all face-to-face communication is non-verbal.

Great study – makes sense, right? We may argue over the exact numbers, but in essence I buy what he’s saying (he’d be honoured, I’m sure).

What I don’t like, however, is media agencies lazily mis-applying this study to any form of communication. It’s amazing how often the ‘face-to-face’ part of the study is ignored.

I have seen three ‘blue chip’ media agencies trying to argue that the principle applies to all communication (which it doesn’t), and specifically, shoe-horning it into the world of media planning by claiming that only 7% of all communication is in the content of the message (ie. the ad) and 93% of it is how you say it (ie. placement) – all backed up solely by a mis-use of Al’s theory (one in the last couple of weeks – hence the post).

Of course placement is critically important. We know that media selection can and will influence how the recipient receives the message. But trying to convince clients on the back of a shoddy mis-interpretation of academic theory is ridiculously poor form – and it also undermines what we do.

Rant over 🙂


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