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Voice tone: make an impact

Mehrabian's 7-38-55% communication rule

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a communication researcher, created the 7-38-55% rule. Roughly speaking, it reflects the results of two studies done that measured how much listeners were affected (in terms of liking or disliking) by the different communication channels of 1) word content, 2) voice tone, and 3) facial expression. The rule says the "liking impact" was determined 7% by content (meaning of the words themselves), 38% by voice tone, and 55% by facial image. 

This rule has been widely (and to some extent inappropriately) generalized to say that these percentages apply more broadly to the total ability of our communication to have an impact. There is also a percentage that is said to apply on the phone (where their is no facial or body image) of 87% voice tone and 13% content.

Regardless, the "rule" makes an important point. If our voice tone and body image are not supportive of and congruent with the content of what we're saying, then we're less likely to have our communication have its desired impact.

Voice tone is often overlooked

Content, of course, is important. We need to focus on crafting our words so as to have the best chance of creating win-win understandings and results with others. The importance of voice tone, however, is even more often overlooked than is content. 

Becoming aware

Many of us rarely, if ever, pay attention to our tone of voice. Start becoming aware (at least from time to time) by asking yourself the question, "Is my tone of voice supportive of and congruent with the intention of the content/message that I am intending to communicate to this person?" 

Just learning to ask this question regularly (and experimenting with tone of voice adjustments) is enough to create better communication with others, step by step. Use Kickstarting a Mental Habit to install the habit of asking yourself this question.

One big difference right away

Many people, I have noticed, have the general habit of speaking too quickly. Certainly, in some contexts, such as public speaking, a faster pace can be more effective and some people are quite good at it (Tony Robbins is a great example). On the other hand, even in public speaking, consider Paul Harvey with his famous radio broadcast "The Rest of the Story." He was a master of using a slow measured tone of voice to create a strong and lasting impact. 


But, in a one-to-one dialogue, speaking more slowly and deliberately has many advantages. 

  • The listener is more likely to be able to hear your words clearly.

  • The listener is more likely to pay attention to the content of what you are saying because the rate of delivery is slower.

  • You, the speaker, will have more time to consider the best words to choose to have the desired impact.

  • You, the speaker, will have more time to pay attention to and craft a better tone of voice to support the impact of your speaking.

  • You, the speaker, will have more time to notice the impact that your speaking is having on your listener (most likely by their facial expressions and body language) and adjust your speaking accordingly.

  • You, the speaker, will be more aware of allowing appropriate pauses for the listener to interrupt you, making it more of a productive dialogue, rather than a monologue. This can even include interrupting yourself to ask the listener how they are hearing what you are saying.

Many of us have a default focus of being "efficient" in our speaking, resulting in speaking more quickly. The result is that we become less effective. Efficiency drives out effectiveness. I've met some Chinese friends who are so proud of being able to speak English fluently, which they equate with speaking quickly. But, even though their diction if flawless, I sometimes have to ask them to slow down so I can more easily understand them!

Other aspects of voice tone

Pace of speaking is just one aspect of voice tone. Pay attention to the rhythm (prosody) of your voice. Pay attention to how you stress or un-stress words. Pay attention to pitch, to register, to timbre, to volume. And very importantly, pay attention to silence. Do you play with how you can use silence to enhance the power of your speaking?

Go forth and speak (sing)!

Think of speaking as a kind of "singing," in that it's an art form where, although the meaning of the words are important, the voice tone creates the power of the message. Every time you speak to another is an opportunity to have fun with seeing how well you can "sing your way into their mind and heart." 

Final note

Listening is more important that speaking. Check out Listening and Listening to listening

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