Exploring the Mehrabian Myth

Every profession as its own set of rules, instructions and standards. As you might expect, these guidelines will vary, sometimes widely, as every individual has their own take on what works best, but in general, they adhere to generally accepted guidelines. On occasion, however, a convention will appear that is egregious false, yet becomes something of a meme and is widely disseminated.

The notion that words don’t matter, or more accurately, that they matter very little when compared to our facial expressions, or the sound of our voice, constitutes one such myth. As often happens, the myth was derived from scientific research, but simply misinterpreted, or misstated, and the resulting meme that is spread far and wide bares little resemblance to the intent of the original research publication. In short, a mangled version of the truth, somehow becomes the truth.

Sometimes this myth is referred to as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, while in other situations it’s offered up as a claim that states “93% of all communication is non-verbal”. In either case it’s 100% bullshit, but let’s dive into the numbers, and the source of the information which became the myth.

We’ll time travel back to 1967, when Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor of Psychology at UCLA, conducted a study that examined how people reacted when they heard words that did not match the tone of the speakers voice, like saying, “Of course I love you honey.”, but in a sarcastic tone that clearly indicated you were mad. In these cases, when the tone was out of alignment with the words, the tone of voice was perceived to be more powerful.

Dr. Albert MehrabianIn a 2nd study, Dr. Mehrabian compared vocal elements with a speaker’s facial expressions, and found that facial elements were more powerful than vocal elements. Face trumps Tone. By combining these studies he came up with the following summary:

  • 55% is what the audience sees – it’s your body language
  • 38% is what the audience hears – the tone of your voice
  • 7% is what you actually say – the words within your talk

To get a visual synopsis of the issue, take a moment to watch this video from CreativityWorks.

“The non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent: if words and body language disagree, one tends to believe the body language.”
– Dr. Albert Mehrabian

In 2009 BBC reporter Tim Harford asked Dr. Mehrabian
if 93% of communication was non-verbal:

“Absolutely not, and whenever I hear that misquote or misrepresentation of my findings I cringe because it should be so obvious to anybody who would use any amount of common sense that that’s not the correct statement.”

The point being, his studies were never intended to examine the relative importance of words, tone or expressions within the context of our conversations, much less public speaking and storytelling from the stage, yet the myth was created and continues to thrive like a classic urban legend.

“There’s just no question that you cannot extrapolate my findings to communication in general.” – Dr. Albert Mehrabian

You can think about it this way. If you really think that 97% of communication is non-verbal, then try describing the movie you just saw to your best friend – without using any words. Charades anyone?

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Marwa Al-Sabouni at TEDSummit 2016

How Syria’s architecture laid the foundation for brutal war

While some stories are meant to be a factual record of what has happened, delving deeper into the why it happened, and what we should do, involves a collection of subjective assumptions, individual conclusions, and personal hypothesis. In this talk from the TEDSummit 2016 conference, delivered by Marwa Al-Sabouni via the internet, we see such a blend.

Marwa takes us into the city of Homs, Syria where she has always lived, and which has been ravaged by years of conflict. While recognizing the fact that there were many factors which caused the war, she takes a close look at the role of architecture in regards to how it can strengthen, or weaken, the social fabric of a community.

Architecture is not the axis around which all human life rotates, but it has the power to suggest and even direct human activity.

In classic Ideas Worth Spreading style, Marwa’s talk combines harsh reality (facts that can be verified) with personal insights and suggestions in a way that compels the listener to pause, consider her perspective, and then reconsider their own preconceived notions.

Full Transcript

Hi. My name is Marwa, and I’m an architect. I was born and raised in Homs, a city in the central western part of Syria, and I’ve always lived here. After six years of war, Homs is now a half-destroyed city. My family and I were lucky; our place is still standing. Although for two years, we were like prisoners at home. Outside there were demonstrations and battles and bombings and snipers. My husband and I used to run an architecture studio in the old town main square. It’s gone, as is most of the old town itself. Half of the city’s other neighborhoods are now rubble. Since the ceasefire in late 2015, large parts of Homs have been more or less quiet. The economy is completely broken, and people are still fighting. The merchants who had stalls in the old city market now trade out of sheds on the streets. Under our apartment, there is a carpenter, sweetshops, a butcher, a printing house, workshops, among many more. I have started teaching part-time, and with my husband, who juggles several jobs, we’ve opened a small bookshop. Other people do all sorts of jobs to get by.

When I look at my destroyed city, of course, I ask myself: What has led to this senseless war? Syria was largely a place of tolerance, historically accustomed to variety, accommodating a wide range of beliefs, origins, customs, goods, food. How did my country — a country with communities living harmoniously together and comfortable in discussing their differences — how did it degenerate into civil war, violence, displacement and unprecedented sectarian hatred? There were many reasons that had led to the war — social, political and economic. They all have played their role. But I believe there is one key reason that has been overlooked and which is important to analyze, because from it will largely depend whether we can make sure that this doesn’t happen again. And that reason is architecture.

Architecture in my country has played an important role in creating, directing and amplifying conflict between warring factions, and this is probably true for other countries as well. There is a sure correspondence between the architecture of a place and the character of the community that has settled there. Architecture plays a key role in whether a community crumbles or comes together. Syrian society has long lived the coexistence of different traditions and backgrounds. Syrians have experienced the prosperity of open trade and sustainable communities. They have enjoyed the true meaning of belonging to a place, and that was reflected in their built environment, in the mosques and churches built back-to-back, in the interwoven souks and public venues, and the proportions and sizes based on principles of humanity and harmony.

This architecture of mixity can still be read in the remains. The old Islamic city in Syria was built over a multilayered past, integrating with it and embracing its spirit. So did its communities. People lived and worked with each other in a place that gave them a sense of belonging and made them feel at home. They shared a remarkably unified existence.

But over the last century, gradually this delicate balance of these places has been interfered with; first, by the urban planners of the colonial period, when the French went enthusiastically about, transforming what they saw as the un-modern Syrian cities. They blew up city streets and relocated monuments. They called them improvements, and they were the beginning of a long, slow unraveling. The traditional urbanism and architecture of our cities assured identity and belonging not by separation, but by intertwining. But over time, the ancient became worthless, and the new, coveted. The harmony of the built environment and social environment got trampled over by elements of modernity — brutal, unfinished concrete blocks, neglect, aesthetic devastation, divisive urbanism that zoned communities by class, creed or affluence.

And the same was happening to the community. As the shape of the built environment changed, so the lifestyles and sense of belonging of the communities also started changing. From a register of togetherness, of belonging, architecture became a way of differentiation, and communities started drifting apart from the very fabric that used to unite them, and from the soul of the place that used to represent their common existence.

While many reasons had led to the Syrian war, we shouldn’t underestimate the way in which, by contributing to the loss of identity and self-respect, urban zoning and misguided, inhumane architecture have nurtured sectarian divisions and hatred. Over time, the united city has morphed into a city center with ghettos along its circumference. And in turn, the coherent communities became distinct social groups, alienated from each other and alienated from the place. From my point of view, losing the sense of belonging to a place and a sense of sharing it with someone else has made it a lot easier to destroy.

The clear example can be seen in the informal housing system, which used to host, before the war, over 40 percent of the population. Yes, prior to the war, almost half of the Syrian population lived in slums, peripheral areas without proper infrastructure, made of endless rows of bare block boxes containing people, people who mostly belonged to the same group, whether based on religion, class, origin or all of the above.

This ghettoized urbanism proved to be a tangible precursor of war. Conflict is much easier between pre-categorized areas — where the “others” live. The ties that used to bind the city together — whether they were social, through coherent building, or economic, through trade in the souk, or religious, through the coexistent presence — were all lost in the misguided and visionless modernization of the built environment.

Allow me an aside. When I read about heterogeneous urbanism in other parts of the world, involving ethnic neighborhoods in British cities or around Paris or Brussels, I recognize the beginning of the kind of instability we have witnessed so disastrously here in Syria.

We have severely destroyed cities, such as Homs, Aleppo, Daraa and many others, and almost half of the population of the country is now displaced.

Hopefully, the war will end, and the question that, as an architect, I have to ask, is: How do we rebuild? What are the principles that we should adopt in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes? From my point of view, the main focus should be on creating places that make their people feel they belong. Architecture and planning need to recapture some of the traditional values that did just that, creating the conditions for coexistence and peace, values of beauty that don’t exhibit ostentation, but rather, approachability and ease, moral values that promote generosity and acceptance, architecture that is for everyone to enjoy, not just for the elite, just as used to be in the shadowed alleys of the old Islamic city, mixed designs that encourage a sense of community.

There is a neighborhood here in Homs that’s called Baba Amr that has been fully destroyed. Almost two years ago, I introduced this design into a UN-Habitat competition for rebuilding it. The idea was to create an urban fabric inspired by a tree, capable of growing and spreading organically, echoing the traditional bridge hanging over the old alleys, and incorporating apartments, private courtyards, shops, workshops, places for parking and playing and leisure, trees and shaded areas. It’s far from perfect, obviously. I drew it during the few hours of electricity we get. And there are many possible ways to express belonging and community through architecture. But compare it with the freestanding, disconnected blocks proposed by the official project for rebuilding Baba Amr.

Architecture is not the axis around which all human life rotates, but it has the power to suggest and even direct human activity. In that sense, settlement, identity and social integration are all the producer and product of effective urbanism. The coherent urbanism of the old Islamic city and of many old European towns, for instance, promote integration, while rows of soulless housing or tower blocks, even when they are luxurious, tend to promote isolation and “otherness.” Even simple things like shaded places or fruit plants or drinking water inside the city can make a difference in how people feel towards the place, and whether they consider it a generous place that gives, a place that’s worth keeping, contributing to, or whether they see it as an alienating place, full of seeds of anger. In order for a place to give, its architecture should be giving, too.

Our built environment matters. The fabric of our cities is reflected in the fabric of our souls. And whether in the shape of informal concrete slums or broken social housing or trampled old towns or forests of skyscrapers, the contemporary urban archetypes that have emerged all across the Middle East have been one cause of the alienation and fragmentation of our communities.

We can learn from this. We can learn how to rebuild in another way, how to create an architecture that doesn’t contribute only to the practical and economic aspects of people’s lives, but also to their social, spiritual and psychological needs. Those needs were totally overlooked in the Syrian cities before the war. We need to create again cities that are shared by the communities that inhabit them. If we do so, people will not feel the need to seek identities opposed to the other identities all around, because they will all feel at home.

Thank you for listening.

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The Craft of TEDx Speaker Coaching

As the TEDxSanDiego organizer for 6 years, organizer for TEDxMonumento258, and having attended 85+ TED/TEDx events since 2010, I’ve experienced a wide variety of stories and accompanying narrative styles. Like a fingerprint, each story is unique, as is each storyteller, and part of that uniqueness is related to the speaker coaching that happens behind the scenes, long before the speaker greets their audience to tell their story.

In my experience few TEDx attendees, or the viewers of TED/TEDx videos, are aware of the speaker prep that occurs in the months preceding an event, which is a shame, as the coaching process is such an important aspect of creating a memorable TEDx experience.

So how does that process work? Just as each speaker and story are unique, every coaching process is unique, as sessions are tailored to the speaker’s talent, experience, and narrative. In addition, no two speaker coaches are the same, with each having developed their own approach to the process. The intent, however, is the same. To maximize the speaker’s impact, and that only happens when a speaker truly connects with the audience with a talk that contains a relevant message.

Silhouette Speaker on Stage

Seeking that combination of connection and relevance is where I begin with a speaker. In the world of TED/TEDx, the mantra is Ideas Worth Spreading, and that phrase means that attendees in the audience, and viewers of the video, will find the idea compelling enough to tell their friends, family, co-workers and associates.

It’s never the job of a coach to write the story, that’s always the responsibility of the speaker, but rather to help define the central idea of the story, assist in the selection of assets which support that idea, and provide guidance on how best to thread those assets into a narrative that will both capture the audience’s attention, and convey the idea in a meaningful way.

Future blog posts will delve deeper into the details and mechanics, but in the meantime, think about the idea that you want to tell the world about, and write down why the audience would find value in hearing that particular idea. How would their lives change, how would they think differently, and most importantly, how would they act differently?

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Storytelling Defined

What image comes to mind when you hear that word? Maybe you envision someone speaking from a stage, or an actor delivering dialogue in a movie. Maybe your mind ventures far back in time to a campfire that’s surrounded by American cowboys, or maybe African tribesmen. In any case, you’re visualizing the art of spoken language, a process by which words are arranged in a manner that conveys meaning, transmitted from one human to another in the form of a story.

But in a very real sense, storytelling began long before humans could communicate with words, going back to a period in our evolution when thoughts could only be expressed with gestures and grunts. Storytelling at that juncture was all about survival: avoiding danger (animals that wanted to eat them) and finding food (animals that they wanted to eat). Some stories were also told visually, in the form of cave paintings as far back as 40,000 years.

Cave-Painting - Cueva de las Manos Hands

Cave-Painting - Cave of Altamira Bison

As language developed, human storytelling expanded from pressing issues of survival to recounting history, educating society, sharing new ideas, and entertaining the masses. Regardless of the intent, or intended audience, the process consisted of humans constructing their stories based on a deliberate selection of internal knowledge (what they thought was true, or what they wanted others to believe was true) combined with their own conscious and unconscious biases.

As this video illustrates, technology has changed the landscape of personal storytelling, largely due to the ability to share videos over the internet. From fictional accounts, to instructional how-tos and the spreading of ideas and opinions, such stories can be captured direct to camera, or by recording a talk that was given in a public forum.

Yet another technology that has allowed storytelling to have a much greater impact is podcasting. Stories predicting the demise of podcasts turned out to be premature (totally bogus) and instead we’ve seen the practice expand, with many podcasts targeting very specific audiences and formats.

As you begin the process of creating your story, keep in mind the global reach that video and audio provide, and the unique style of storytelling that works best within each of these formats.

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