Thoughts on Leadership: The 93% Rule: Nonverbal Communication

Only 7 percent of any interaction with another person transpires through the actual words that you say, according to a classic study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA. The other 93 percent is communicated through body language, voice, tone, grammar and facial expressions.

Nonverbal communication is as important as what you say with words. Your nonverbal expressions can reveal your true feelings about something. “Of all the things you wear, your expression is the most important,” as Pat Croce says in “Lead or Get off the Pot! The Seven Secrets of a Self-Made Leader.”

Nonverbal communication makes up the majority of our daily communication.

As a leader, part of your responsibility is to communicate change to others. Words may articulate confidence, but a nonverbal gesture could counteract the overall message. Sticking your hands in your pockets or fidgeting come across as signs that you are uncertain. Likewise, if you’re trying to convey openness, but choose to distance yourself behind a podium, the verbal and nonverbal messages conflict.

Appearance and dress are part of this nonverbal communication conveying a message. Being a strong believer of “casual creates casualties” at the workplace, I always like to wear a suit and look my best. There are instances where this rule can be broken. I recall a business trip Bob Moles and I once took in Hawaii. The franchise owner had insisted casual attire was appropriate so I presented the Intero story to a group in Hawaii wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt and shorts. After the presentation, to my surprise most of the attendees had commented that they were so glad I did not wear a suit and tie as they were dressed in casual attire as well. In turn, their feedback on my appearance that day allowed my presentation to be believable and made each attendee feel as if I was one of their colleagues.

Here’s another story about nonverbal communication:

An oil company executive showed up at a refinery in a designer suit and tie to discuss the firm’s affairs with rank-and-file operators, electricians and members of the warehouse staff who were each dressed in their blue, fire-retardant overalls.

After his introduction, he walked carefully to the front of the room, removed his watch and very deliberately placed it on the podium. His unspoken message was, “I’m a very important man, I don’t like coming into dirty places like this, and I have exactly 20 minutes to spend with you.”

What were his first words to the group? “I’m happy to be with you today.” A very different message from his actions. Which do you think those refinery workers believed? The CEO’s spoken words or what his body language said?

When verbal and non-verbal channels of communication are out of sync, most people (those refinery workers, for example) tend to rely on the non-verbal message, and disregard the verbal content.

Peter Drucker, the renowned author, professor and management consultant, understood this. “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said,” he once said.

Leaders convey strong messages through nonverbal communication. People know when you speak from the heart by watching your eyes and your hands. It’s important to maintain eye contact and focus on the person or people you’re speaking to.

Any time you communicate your vision, it’s important to consider the 93 Percent Rule. Your credibility and reputation will depend a lot on your nonverbal communication style.

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