As the old saying goes, it’s not what you say but how you say it.

This is especially true in the world of risk, high-concern, and crisis communication.

In a classic and widely cited set of studies on nonverbal communication, Albert Mehrabian found the following:

• 7 percent of a message is conveyed through words.

• 38 percent is conveyed through vocal elements such as tone.

• 55 percent is conveyed through nonverbal elements such as eyes, facial expressions, gestures, and posture.

While there are limitations to this research (see below), it might still be a great surprise to many that such a high portion of a message is conveyed through nonverbal elements.

How you say it, indeed!

The Study

In Mehrabian’s research, subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a speaker saying words such as maybe in different ways to convey liking, neutrality, and disliking. They were also shown photos of a woman’s face conveying the same three emotions.

The subjects were then asked to speculate about the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together.

The subjects correctly identified the emotions 50 percent more often from the photos than from the voice.

In a second study, subjects were asked to listen to nine recorded words, three meant to convey liking, three to convey neutrality, and three to convey disliking.

Each word was pronounced three different ways. When asked to speculate about the emotions being conveyed, subjects were more influenced by the tone of voice than by the words themselves.

Limitations of the Research

Because of significant limitations of the research, it is unclear the extent to which Mehrabian’s original formula (7 percent words/38 percent tone of voice/55 percent body language formula) can be applied or extended to overall nonverbal communication.

For example, Mehrabian used few people in his experiments; the research design did not take into account the extent to which the speakers could produce the required tone of voice; the experimental situation was artificial with no context; the communication model used for the experiment was oversimplified; little weight was attached to the characteristics of the observers making judgments; and the experimental subjects were aware of the purpose of the experiments.

As a result, the research findings are directly applicable only to situations where

1. a speaker is using only a few words

2. the tone of the spoken words is inconsistent with the meaning of the word

3. a judgment is being made about the feelings of the speaker

With these critiques in mind, Mehrabian nonetheless began a series of research projects confirming the power of speech and, more broadly, the power of nonverbal communication.

One nonverbal cue alone typically means little. Clusters of nonverbal cues, however, provide critical information about a spokesperson and the messages being presented.

Key Nonverbal Pitfalls in Western European Culture

The exact meaning of a nonverbal communication depends on the context and culture in which it occurs. In Western culture, the most important nonverbal body language cues are eyes/facial expressions, posture, voice, hands, and overall appearance.

The following nonverbal pitfalls can occur in Western culture:

1. Poor eye contact (combined with facial expressions, this can communicate lack of listening, caring, concern, competence, expertise, honesty, and transparency).

2. Insufficient volume (this can communicate lack of confidence, competence, and openness).

3. Poor enunciation/pronunciation.

4. Poor vocal pacing and rhythm.

5. Repetitive use of distracting words such as “okay,” “like,” “um,” or “uh.”

6. Poor posture (this can communicate lack of confidence and authority).

7. Repetitive gestures and motions (hand waving, throat-clearing, jingling keys or change, and pacing can be distracting and communicate lack of confidence).

8. Poor grooming.

9. Distracting attire or jewelry.

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.

The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.

More information, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found at the link above or by emailing

Dr. Vincent Covello

Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, speaker, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.


Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. New York: Transaction Publications.

See, e.g.: Archer D., & Akert R. M. (1977) Words and everything else: Verbal and nonverbal cues in social interpretation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 443–449; Mehrabian, A., & Wiener M. (1967) Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109–114; Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., O’Sullivan, M., & Scherer, K. (1980). Relative importance of face, body, and speech in judgements of personality and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 270–277 Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967) Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 248–452; Jones, E. J., LeBaron, C. D. (2002) Research on the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication: Emerging integrations. Journal of Communication. Special Issue, 52, 499–521; Krauss, R. M., Apple, W., Morency, N. Wenzel, C., & Winton, W. (1981) Verbal, vocal and visible factors in judgements of another’s affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 312–320; Trimboli, A., Walker, Michael B. (1987) Nonverbal dominance in the communication of affect: A myth? Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 11, 180–190; Wallbott, H. G., & Scherer, K. R. (1986) Cues and channels in emotion recognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 690–699.