For or against: What is more powerful in influencing behaviour: words or body language? Philip Yaffe, author and international communications expert, and Pamela Thorpe, author and management trainer with Viva Training, discuss.
Philip Yaffe: Words
The putative “scientific fact” that communication is only 7 per cent verbal and 93 per cent non-verbal is a gross distortion.
In the 1960s researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted two studies into how much sentiment or emotion could be conveyed in a single word. They asked volunteers to listen to a woman saying specific words in different ways and to decide if she was expressing like, dislike or neutrality. The results showed that under these very restricted conditions, body language and tone of voice often better conveyed meaning than the actual words themselves, giving rise to that now famously misused ‘rule’. However, this was not the conclusion of the researchers. Prof Albert Mehrabian, who led the research, on many occasions has pointed out that the results are valid only for inconsistent or contradictory communication. He never intended the results to apply to normal conversation and certainly not to speeches.
Good speakers must still rely on what great orators have always known. A speech that is confused and disorganised is a poor speech no matter how well it is delivered. The essence of a good speech is what it says. This can be enhanced by body language and tone of voice. But these are auxiliary, not primary.
One of the most famous speeches of all time is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Its 272 words continue to inspire 150 years after they were spoken. No one has the slightest idea of Lincoln’s movements or voice tones. Enough said.
Pamela Thorpe: Body Language
We like to think that we are logical beings who use our thinking power to make rational decisions. More research, though, points out that many of our choices are not necessarily rational. Though we might not be aware of it on a conscious level, we respond to subtle non-verbal signals from other people.
We show bias in favour of good-looking people – the so-called ‘halo effect’. If an interviewer views a job applicant as likeable or attractive, they are more likely to rate the applicant as competent.
We respond viscerally to so-called ‘micro-expressions’ – a momentary grimace, a show of contempt, or a nod of approval. Experienced interrogators know to look for ‘Duper’s Delight’ when someone trying to conceal a criminal act has a brief flicker of an inappropriate smile. We easily sense a disconnect between what a person might say and their body language. Something doesn’t feel right and we pick up on it.
If someone is attracted to us, their pupils might be dilated, or they might touch us on the arm or shoulder.
So if you are trying to persuade another person, be very aware of the power of your non-verbal signals.
Before you make your sales pitch or present your business case, remember that a genuine smile and a firm, but not overpowering, handshake are a good start. An open body stance with palms up will help to convince the other person that you are trustworthy.
So by all means use logic to get your message across, but don’t forget to also have congruent body language.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the October 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘For or Against’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.