Which Carries More Meaning: Words – Tone – Visual

7 – 38 – 55 Since Albert Mehrabian’ s research in 1967 this ratio has been the go to for speakers, trainers and others to reinforce how important aspects other than words are, in communication. Mehrabian’ s research has been interpreted to demonstrate that only 7% of a message is delivered via the words. Thirty eight percent is delivered via the tone of voice and 55% via the visual effect.

And intuitively it makes sense. We’ve all been in the room with someone who says nothing and yet communicates a very clear message.

  • Arms crossed frown on their face.
  • Furrowed brow leaning forward
  • Head bowed and shoulders slumped

And we have all heard the tone that in congruent with the words and have drawn our own conclusion.  Perhaps it’s an apology that does not sound contrite…”I said I WAS SORRY.”

I believe there is a lot of truth in Merhabian’s observation AND that it does not cover all communications. There are times when words need to be precise and have precise meanings. I am thinking of in a military operation or on the flight deck. Certain phrases and gestures have certain meanings for EVERYONE. They can’t afford a mistake in understanding.

As an example the difference between “halt” and “stop.” Halt means a cessation of activity. A stop can be a place where buses and other conveyances stop.  http://wikidiff.com/stop/halt  or a closed fits in the air is a silent command for everyone to cease movement as opposed to “power to the people.”  In a military setting where lives are at stake misinterpretation can be deadly. So how does the military assure that everyone knows the precise language of the culture? They train it, the drill it and it is operationalized.

I have observed many organizations struggle because they were not precise in their meanings. One good example is on-boarding. When I was selling outsourcing services there was an on-boarding process. We needed names, contacts information, system formats, file layouts, network connections and so on. And because I had a national territory I had the chance to see variations of the process. (As well as the variations in performance as a result of the on-boarding).

I am remembering two organizations in the same industry. They were competitors. In one organization there were very clear Standard Operating Procedures, (SOP’s). Everyone was expected and had agreed to follow these. The output was standardized and when things did not go as expected it was easier to find the root cause. In the other organization each unit was allowed to “wing” it. And the results varied from office to office.

The questions leaders can ask are:

  • What does the team absolutely need to know and agree on to be effective?
  • How will we train, drill and reinforce that knowledge?
  • What does not need to be operationalized?

Not everything needs to be written down and or be so structured. There is room and we want room for creativity and experimentation.

So which is it, words, tone or visual that carries the most meaning? It depends.

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