Pixie Dust, and Why I Cheated in my Exam

Trainers love pixie dust, and the moment you quote a number – especially a highly specific number (not “just half” but a very precise 55%) you turn theory into science. Albert Mehrabian’s work done in 1972 is widely quoted to “prove” that 55% is communicated by our facial expression and body language, 38% is in the tone of voice and just 7% in the actual words themselves.

Trainers, in particular love to quote these numbers. Numbers carry a ring of authority. Did you know, for example, that the maximum attention span for auditory information is 12 minutes? How do you know? I read it in Phil Green’s blog.

Common sense and experience tell you that it is nonsense to interpret Mehrabian’s proposition as “the words don’t matter; concentrate on energy and passion and regulate your body language and you are bound to get your message across”. And yet that is precisely what some people think the research means. As a result, sales trainers, presenters, lecturers etc., are advised not to worry too much about the content of a message (after all you can think on your feet), but to rehearse and hone the style and the passion of the delivery.

One member of a training group in which I was a delegate, Kate, gave the example of her getting by on holiday with no common language. I warmed to Kate and trusted her sincerity as soon as I heard her speak for the first time, so I’m sure that tone and body language are influential. Nor do I doubt the honesty of her account or the depth of her belief, but I have also heard people  say, “I lay awake all night for an hour or so yesterday”. Memory can be very selective. Context matters, too; in a shop overseas, for example, she would have been able to use gesture to point out objects, and those objects stood for language. Also if she could magically view a video of her entire holiday I think even Kate might be very surprised at how much actual language was used. Although it was in a foreign tongue, there are many words with common or similar roots amongst languages in Europe and beyond, and they give clues to meaning. Moreover, if the words carry only 7% of the meaning, why would anyone ever bother to learn a foreign language? Why do Greek and Spanish waiters typically speak English?As for the “theory”, Mehrabian himself has said repeatedly that was “NOT WHAT I MEANT!” He was interested in the cognitive dissonance that happens when a person says one thing but means another, for example when a teenager exhales a long-suffering “yessssss” in agreement to a parental demand that they don’t really commit to. The professor said his work showed that there was some significance in the counterpoint between the words, tone and non-verbal cues ONLY when someone is expressing feelings and emotions. He found and reported on no effect in any other context.

There are two very compelling and entertaining clips on YouTube that may convince you if I have failed to do so.



I’m not trying to be smart-assed, but I have spent my working life dealing with the unlearning people have to do when they have been sold a pup or some fabulous pop-psychology that later let them down.

But to finish, there is something I have to confess. It’s about that training group I mentioned. I’d taken part because in that half day training, I saw the promise of some value. I do a bit of training myself, and have trained hundreds of trainers in my career. On this occasion I was pleased to be trained by Dean, whose skills are up there with the best. It was not his fault that Albert’s numbers came into the curriculum. He did a very professional job, and I’ve nicked some of his best ideas. No, the biggest problem was with the award. After 2.5 hours of serious engagement and thinking, came the promise of an actual qualification, and I can now proudly put some new letters after my name. In order to gain the qualification, I had to pass a multiple choice quiz. Guess how I answered the question about the 7%. So like the guy in the poem “snake”, I have something to expiate – a pettiness!

This entry was posted in Mehrabian, pop psychology, trainer, training. Bookmark the permalink.