Debunking the Mehrabian Model: Words Do Matter (and Here’s Why)

June 12th, 2017 | Lin Parkin | Communication
Debunking the Mehrabian Model: Words Do Matter

Have You Heard of The Mehrabian Model?

It’s a common communications model discussed within customer service and communications training programs today, but it’s not perfect. While the study it was derived from may provide some interesting insight into verbal and nonverbal cues, it is difficult to extract any truly meaningful facts or figures.

Let’s have a look at why.

First, we will travel back in time to 1967, when Albert Mehrabian, Professor of Psychology at UCLA, and two of his colleagues conducted a study on nonverbal communication.

The study was centered around the communication of feelings and attitudes – likes or dislikes – in relation to words used, tone of voice and facial expressions. The experiments were conducted on a small, uniform bunch of volunteers and only tested single words with just the speakers face visible.

From these studies, Mehrabian proposed that the emotional value of communication is 7% Verbal, 38% Vocal and 55% Facial.

That meant only 7% of the spoken words were used for interpreting the true meaning behind what someone was saying. For comparison’s sake, it’s like when someone says “No, I’m not mad at you”, but their tone and body language actually says, “I am furious with you.”

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Ever since Mehrabian first published his research all those years ago, customer service professionals, communication specialists and public speakers have been misstating his study. They, not Mehrabian, made the formula below famous in relation to interacting with other people:

  • Importance of your words = 7%
  • Importance of your tone of voice = 38%
  • Importance of your body language = 55%

Some people view this as meaning 93% of our interactions occur through nonverbal communication, or rather, that what you say matters less than how you say it. But Mehrabian has spent decades trying to correct this misconception of his study and addresses its common misuse in a quote from his website:

“Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

To summarize, Mehrabian’s original study was not about communicating information. It was about communicating feelings.

So, do words actually matter?

Yes! Words Matter.

Human beings evolved long ago into the language-based creatures we are today. We are metaphorical thinkers, who understand the world through language-based symbols and comparisons. Body language and tone are non-linguistic and are not enough to convey the entirety of our messages.

For example, just try watching Steve Jobs deliver one of his famous speeches at a TED Talk with the volume turned off and then attempt to summarize his message. Or try to convey the meaning of 93 sentences using body language alone. Or listen to couple speaking a foreign language to each other and try to decipher what they‘re saying based only on their tone of voice.


The notion that words are unimportant in communication is a total myth.

To understand the context of nonverbal communication, we must also understand the words being spoken. To this point, the hearing impaired communicate through gestures, but the complex gestures of sign language are representative of words we know. This way of communicating is manually linguistic and is not in any way the same as reading body language.

One could summarize it like this:

  • Tone of voice and body language carry emotion.
  • Words carry meaning.

Live Chat: Choosing Your Words Carefully

That’s not to say that verbal communication is more important than nonverbal. When speaking to a customer in person your facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and words work together to deliver a complete message.

In a live chat, however, all you have is written communication which adds a whole different element to how your message might be interpreted. While it may be true that words carry meaning, if Mehrabian’s study shows anything conclusive, it‘s that words alone can sometimes be misleading.

When you’re not communicating face-to-face, or even over the phone, words can be accidentally misread as negative or condescending. That’s why it’s so important to ensure your messages are spot on when dealing with customers in chat.

In the examples below, the first response is simple, almost robotic. The second is informative and more conversational.

  1. “Hold please.”
  2. “Do you mind holding for a moment while I look up your account information? Great! I’ll be right back.”
  1. “I don’t know.”
  2. “That’s a good question! Let me find out for you.”
  1. “You can’t do that online. Call 1-800-xxx-xxxx for assistance.”
  2. “Our ABC Specialists would be happy to assist you with this. Please give them a call at 1-800-xxx-xxxx.”

You can almost hear agitation in the first examples and see a friendly smile in the second. To convey empathy and sincerity in your messages, try to avoid passive or negative words. Otherwise, doing so may irritate or undermine your customers. Some common culprits are:

  • Can’t do
  • Won’t do
  • Don’t do
  • Just do
  • Not available
  • Cheaper
  • Basic
  • No

In any given situation, people want to interact with others who are approachable, engaging, helpful and sincere. And that is particularly true when assisting customers over a digital platform like live chat. The more you can humanize the experience, the better.

You can take it one step further by incorporating power words into your live chat responses. For example, rather than saying, “ Yes, I can do that,” try “Absolutely! I’m happy to help you with that.” Power words bring excitement to your statements and make your customers feel enthusiastic about doing business with you.

You can add a more positive inflection to simple statements by using words like:

  • Absolutely
  • Completely
  • Definitely
  • Gladly
  • Happy
  • Excellent
  • Fantastic
  • Great
  • Good
  • Terrific

Using Live Chat Scripts to Enhance Nonverbal Communication

With live chat, many inquiries are asked over and over again by different customers. That can sometimes lead to less than desirable conversations. Making use of your live chat scripts offers a proactive solution to help maintain the quality of your interactions and speed up repetitive tasks.

For the word-weary live chat agent, scripted responses are a boon. It takes the monotony out of answering the same inquiries and ensures that you won’t be misunderstood. Each customer receives the same cheery response even if it’s the one-hundredth time you’ve been asked that question.

To help you get things going, we have compiled 75 live chat scripts in one handy eBook. Download your free copy now! If you have any questions about using the LiveChat100 system or setting up your scripts, our friendly agents are standing by to help. Contact us today!

75 Live Chat Scripts

[Free Download] 75 Live Chat Scripts That Don’t Make Your Agents Sound Like Robots

Quality scripts can be an amazing tool to save time, enhance quality and communicate your brand voice. In this guide, we’ll lay out some scripts which are time-saving while sounding human, engaged, and most importantly, not robotic.

Download Now


Lin Parkin has specialized in digital customer service management, public relations, and content writing for over a decade. She is passionate about changing the way people view online customer service and helping digital customer service teams deliver a stellar experience with each interaction. As a freelance writer, Lin contributes to business and lifestyle magazines as both a writer and editor and writes for business blogs across Canada and the U.S. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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