UK: Successful Persuasion: The Missing 93%

Last Updated: 5 June 2019
Article by Ben Pilbrow

How many of you have read the book 'Silent Messages'? How many of you have even heard of it or its author, Professor Albert Mehrabian? Probably not that many.

By contrast, most of you have probably heard the key thesis of the book, stripped of its nuance and justification. For the book is the original source of the much quoted 'fact' that:

  • 7% of communication is through the words we speak;
  • 38% of communication is paralinguistic (the way that words are spoken); and
  • 55% of communication is the result of body language.

Today, we are not going to address the problems with the common misrepresentation of Professor Mehrabian's thesis or consider the subsequent research challenging, adding to and refining it. Fundamentally, his thesis is so widely known, even in its bastardised form, because undoubtedly it uncovers a universal truth. Non-verbals are incredibly important elements of communication. Whether or not you believe Professor Mehrabian's statistics, everybody has experienced the truth of the message. If you don't believe that, just think of the last time you sent a text message, and then bemoaned the fact that irony doesn't work well through that medium.

Now that we spend so much of our working lives online, have you ever considered what we sacrifice when we choose to send an email rather than negotiating in person or on the phone?

Clearly, we lose the missing 93%. Our body language, our facial expressions, our gestures, the tone and pitch of our voice, where we chose to place ourselves: we lose it all. Perhaps the only form of non-verbal communication that we don't lose is silence – the choice not to respond to an e-mail can be a message in and of itself. However, even this is watered down, because we can rarely be certain that the silence is an intended form of communication.

When face-to-face, we have many additional cues with which to understand the intended message. Our process of analysing these is sub-conscious and automatic. In e-mails, we transmit only words. Without these additional human signals, we can't adjust to the immediate feedback they provide nor can we provide our own. The result is that our entire understanding of a conversation rests on what is written.  Given our considerable use of emails and texts, perhaps this is accepted as the necessary trade-off for the speed and efficiency they provide.

As lawyers, particularly dispute resolution lawyers, we have spent years honing the impact of the words we write. We learn to write clearly, concisely, and logically, all with the intent of being more persuasive. But, what if there is an additional, and perhaps easier, way to be more persuasive?

Persuasion is personal

Psychologists suggest that there is – and it all depends upon reintroducing an element of the humanity lost in our written communications. For example, psychologically it is easier for us to disregard logical argument than emotional argument, a fact well known to charities worldwide when they broadcast messages focused on individual stories of need rather than statistics. Why? Because human brains process the two types of information differently using different parts of the brain.

For the sceptical amongst you consider these examples.

An online car valet business reported drastically reducing the number of cancellations by its customers, improving its efficiency and profitability. How did it achieve this advancement? It simply started including photographs of the driver assigned on a job with their customer confirmations. The overt connection between the written message and the person influenced its customers’ behaviours. In other words, it's easier to ignore a faceless message.

The programmers responsible for chat-bots have leapt on this fact, typically doing as much as they can to humanise their programme. Alexa and Siri both have human names for a reason.

Research by Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, two Yale psychologists, highlighted just how far creating a human connection can influence behaviour. They devised an experiment, in which they gave two groups of students an insoluble maths puzzle to work on. Beforehand, each student was asked to read a mix of magazine articles, including a brief biography of a fictitious, former Yale maths student named Nathan Jackson. The biography was identical for both groups of students, save in one respect. For one group, Jackson was given a random birthday; for the other, he was given a birthday matching the individual student.

This very simple, arbitrary connection was enough to encourage those students who 'shared' Jackson's birthday to spend 65 percent longer persevering with the insoluble problem than those that did not.

Perhaps the answer is just to pick up the phone. Better yet, go and negotiate in person. And at the very least, personalise what you write to be more persuasive.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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