The Importance of Body Language for Story Success

February 27, 2024

Words tell a story.

So do actions. Reactions. Expressions. .

Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has studied the importance of both verbal and non-verbal communication. Mehrabian says that our communication – 100% of our message – breaks down in this way:

7% is the words we use, the content of our message, WHAT we say.

38% is our voice – our vocal inflection and pace, HOW we say what we say.

55% is what’s left. Do you know what it is?

Here’s an image that might help:

Png image 4ca3 9a82 42 0 the importance of body language for story success

It’s body language.

It turns out appearances DO matter, at least when it comes to successful communication.

According to Professor Mehrabian, more than half of our message stems from our non-verbal communication including body language, posture, facial expressions, and readable energy.

As someone who strongly believes in the power of words, I found that fact eye-opening, which would be visually represented if you could see my eyes wide open right about now.

Png image 4597 a06a a1 0 the importance of body language for story success

Words matter. The words we choose can humanize our message or confuse it. But if you aim to be understood, you can’t rely on words alone.

The more sense “touchpoints” you open up will benefit your message. The more important the message, the more touchpoints you should aim to include.

Anyone who has failed to get their point across in an email or text knows what I mean.

Speaking to someone face-to-face is ideal. But what about when you can’t meet face-to-face?

Virtual tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and FaceTime allow the use of video so we can still “see” each other. ¬†While that format may lack the energy of an in-person conversation, attendees can read body language and the facial expressions they might otherwise miss.

Having a bad hair day or still in your pajamas? You’ll likely have your camera off. Despite this, the listener can hear your voice, that important 38% of your message. Much like a phone call, hearing someone’s voice can add context.

Do they sound angry or sad? Relieved or adamant? Are they struggling to contain their emotions or their excitement?

When you take away the voice and move your message to email or Slack or text, you’ve eliminated 93% of the contextual clues to your message.

We’re back to just words. Powerful as words are, without those visual and audible clues, our message may miss the mark.

Key and Peale have a very funny sketch about such a text exchange.

It’s something I’ve experienced first-hand. Take, for example, the time a boss emailed me a two-word subject line. It said,(in ALL CAPS) “CALL ME!”

Call me 1 the importance of body language for story success

What would you think if you received such an email? Is it good news or is it bad? Are you eager to call or concerned or terrified you’re getting fired?

I landed firmly in that final category. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the “CALL ME” message was to inform me my group had won a prestigious media award.

Our interpretation of the message is very much driven by our own inner stories, and how we perceive and process the information around us.

(Anyone who needs to rewrite and reframe old or unhelpful storylines should check out my book, “Fire Your Narrator! A Storyteller’s Guide to Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Life.”)

Our interpretation is also driven by the information we’re provided. In this case, a subject line in ALL CAPS (“CALL ME”) followed by an exclamation point (!) creates a sense of urgency and friction.

Call me 2 the importance of body language for story success

How might I have received that message with additional sensory touchpoints? If my boss had picked up the phone to say, “Hey, call me!” even without any additional information, I would have recognized the positive emotion in his voice. Had he popped by my office with a smile on his face and a celebratory bottle of champagne, I certainly would have recognized the message for the good news it entailed.

If you’re going to create a message based solely on words alone, be sure the words are complete and compelling. The addition of “I’ve got great news!” would have tempered the “CALL ME!” headline. Or even, “no rush, call when you have a moment” would have produced less anxiety.

To truly make sure your message is received as intended, be deliberate in your wording and open up as many touchpoints as possible so that your voice and body language can communicate what you are thinking and feeling and how you want the listener to think and feel.

Despite the power of words, words alone are often not enough.

And I wish you could hear that in my voice (38%) and through my body language (55%) as I write these words. (7%)

That might help this message.

(Note to self: turn this post into a YouTube video for inclusion of voice and body language!)

Valerie gordon the storytelling strategist lr the importance of body language for story success

Valerie Gordon is a longtime storyteller, a former Emmy-winning television producer, and a communications strategist. She works with corporations and speaks at conferences to grow future leaders and strong teams through the power of storytelling skills. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her for information about bringing a keynote or workshop to your organization: valerie@storytellingstrategist.com

 

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