Non-verbal communication can negate what you're trying to say

How do you spend most of your time when preparing to give a speech? If you are like most advocates and policymakers we’ve worked with, your answer is content or the words. You might even think the content is all that matters. You’d be wrong.

In face-to-face communication—whether you are giving a speech, making a fundraising pitch or talking to a voter at their door—what you say is easily overridden by how you say it. Voters overwhelmingly rely on non-verbal information—your body language and verbal tone—to determine what you really mean.

A famous study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, found that an audience decodes the intent behind a speaker’s words:

  • from visual clues (body language) about 55 percent of the time;
  • from tone of voice about 38 percent of the time; and
  • from the speaker’s actual words only about 7 percent of the time.

Mehrabian’s work also demonstrated that when a speaker’s words and non-verbal messages are in conflict, the audience believes the non-verbal every time. There are several common situations where this research matters a lot to you.

First, when people are trying to decide whether or not they like you, they will pay most attention to what you are expressing non-verbally. Elections are popularity contests of sorts, and whether you win or lose depends on whether people like you enough to listen to what you have to say.

Second, when people are trying to decide whether they trust you, they will again pay most attention to non-verbal cues. For example, if you use strong words to say you are going to address a pressing problem but your shoulders are slumped, your hand gestures are weak, and your voice is high, they will simply not believe you.

Third, when people are trying to decide whether to believe what you are telling them—because they aren’t familiar with the facts of the matter—they use non-verbal clues to decide what to believe. This is very important when communicating with persuadable voters because they pay the least attention to the nuances of politics or policy.

Fourth, if people disagree with your position on an issue they will still use non-verbal cues to make up their minds about you. For example, they may strongly disagree with your tax policy but decide to support you anyway because you come across, non-verbally, as a stable and trustworthy person.

In short, we all use our emotions to help us decide what to think. Oftentimes we will first form an opinion based on our emotions and then look for facts to support that opinion. When the verbal and non-verbal are in conflict, people trust the non-verbal. So it is essential to make your best possible non-verbal presentation.


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