The significance of a strong voice

 I lost my voice this week. It totally disappeared and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it apart from remain quiet. Even communication professionals can fall victim to vocal cord viruses, although this was a first for me.

But never one to let an opportunity slip by, I used this ironic situation and my enforced silence to contemplate the importance of a strong voice, and how its significance is often lost or ignored.

The misconceived importance of a strong voice

There’s a much misquoted research paper by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, who studied how university students recognised the emotions expressed by other students. He found that:

  • Body language accounted for 55% of their understanding
  • Voice accounted for 38%
  • Words accounted for just 7% of how students’ emotions were understood by their peers.

Since 1971, when Professor Mehrabian conducted his research, this 55%-38%-7% pattern has been wrongly extrapolated worldwide, by organisations trying to make a fast buck ‘scientifically proving’ their approach to communication training.

The pattern is regularly misinterpreted to demonstrate that when you want to make an impression on someone, 55% of your meaning comes across in body language, 38% comes across in voice, and only 7% comes across in words.

Unfortunately that’s total rubbish. Professor Mehrabian himself has complained that using figures out of context is completely inaccurate. For example it is impossible to extrapolate from an understanding of student emotions to an explanation of financial data. It’s like comparing oranges with curry. They may both be foodstuffs but they have very little in common.

And yet the urban myth persists. It’s difficult to dispel a myth. But it’s also important that the truth comes out. So that’s what I’m reflecting on today.

The fundamentals for a strong voice

Apart from whispering, I’ve been silent for several days now, in an attempt to let my vocal cords heal from the bug that attacked them.

I normally have a rich, strong voice, which is such an integral part of my everyday life that I very rarely think about it as a tool – it’s as much a part of me as my arms and legs.

Of course a strong voice is something that anyone can achieve – it’s just a matter of understanding what to do with your body to make your voice ring out properly. But you do need a healthy set of vocal cords at the outset.

The independent value of body language

As a quasi-experiment, I’ve been trying to communicate without speaking. And I can categorically confirm that people do not understand me by body language alone. They certainly do not get 55% of my meaning that way.

It might be useful if I spoke sign language, but I don’t. And neither do those around me. So I’ve reverted to the Christmas-afternoon type of charades, which is usually played with mince pies aplenty and overflowing sherry glasses.

Sadly, my wordless attempts to make myself understood have met with confusion and bewilderment. Body language alone just doesn’t cut the mustard. Perhaps I should have tempted people with alcohol and sugary carbs for better results.

Adding a strong voice to effective body language

Many years ago I lived and worked in Russia for the BBC. English was a rarity on the borders of Siberia, and as I spoke no Russian when I arrived, the potential for misunderstanding was high.

It might have been easier had I stayed in a hotel, but the BBC allocated me a Stalinist apartment in a grey concrete block, a bus ride from work. So I had to communicate with bus conductors, shop assistants and market traders, none of whom understood my language, and in whose own mother tongue I was completely lacking.

As you might imagine, body language played a large part in these encounters. But my voice helped too. People tended to recognise my tonality when I spoke in a clear, strong voice, and they could often glean my meaning from the ups and downs, the stresses and inflections of my voice. A question in most languages ends on an upwards tone. A negative response is usually short and authoritative.

My words were incomprehensible and therefore irrelevant to those around me, but my body language mixed with the sound of my voice provided people with equal measures of understanding.

Of course my communications were very basic: “I’d like that cheese please” (pointing and verbalizing). “No, not that one, the one next to it”… and “Water?” (tilting an imaginary bottle).

Words play a fundamentally important role in communication, so it would have been impossible to have held a coherent, interesting conversation at first. But at least I didn’t starve.

After a year or so in Russia, I’d picked up a considerable amount of the language, and could happily converse about miners blocking the railway lines or teachers going on hunger strike. As a journalism trainer these were my topics-de-jour, but small-talk would still have been all but impossible.

Strong voice, effective body language plus impactful words

When I compare my silent body language experiment of this week (no words, no voice) with my ‘Russian’ body language and speech, the Russian version wins hands-down.

Trying to communicate with people who speak my language, but without voice or words is much, much harder than communicating in a foreign country with a strong voice to add to the body language.

When words are taken out of the equation, it seems the importance of voice and body language are roughly equal in helping people understand meaning. And when words come into the picture, they play a similarly important role.

It seems that words, voice and body language are all just as valuable as one another when it comes to getting a message across. And that blows the Mehrabian myth right out of the water.