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In the 1960’s, Professor Albert Mehrabian published ground-breaking research analyzing the effectiveness of spoken communications.  He discovered that in certain situations, the words, themselves, only carried 7 per cent of a message’s perceived meaning.  Sound cues (e.g., volume, pacing, pitch, etc.) accounted for 38 per cent of message perception, and visual cues (e.g., facial expression, “body language,” etc.) accounted for 55 per cent of message perception.  Let’s examine this surprising finding from the consultative salesperson’s perspective.

First, two important qualifications of Mehrabian’s research:

  • These percentages only apply to “mixed signals” situations— when there are perceived inconsistencies or contradictions between the words and the way they are expressed (i.e., the visual and sound cues).  An example: “It’s nice to meet you,” isn’t very credible if muttered, and accompanied by a weak handshake and no eye contact.
  • Issues regarding feelings and attitudes are most likely to produce mixed-signals perceptions; communicating straight facts can be successful despite unexpected visual or sound cues.  An example: “Our computers are down,” may be understood and believed even if the speaker, surprisingly, is smiling.

Importantly, the media form, itself, can aid or hinder the understanding and credibility of the message.

By definition, face-to-face meetings bring everything into play— words, visual cues and sound cues.  If feelings and attitudes are an important element, this is most likely the best communication medium.  Video conferencing is a less communications-rich alternative, since some supporting cues may not be noticed.  If the issue could impact the client/salesperson relationship, it almost certainly needs a face-to-face component; objection resolution situations are an excellent example.

The telephone offers words and sound cues, but no visual cues (which otherwise might strongly support the speaker’s conviction).  Even so, the sound cues can help considerably.  Some selling skills trainers teach telemarketers to view themselves in a mirror— “acting out” the facial expressions and body language of an in-person conversation— to maximize the richness of the non-verbal audio signals.

Yes, email is a very practical and convenient medium; it goes everywhere, very quickly, and to many people simultaneously.  Because it’s “only” words, this medium is especially prone to misperceived communications.  An intended joke taken seriously is an example.  (Again, if the content is only clear-cut facts, the risk is reduced.)  Since the words must carry everything, email messages should be carefully composed, organized, crystal clear and comprehensive, yet succinct.  In practice, that’s probably rarely the case.  (Letters are usually better crafted and may signal thoughtfulness, but they’re much less convenient.)

Albert Mehrabian’s research suggests that the consultative salesperson should consciously choose a communication medium which best supports the content of the message.  Messages involving attitudes and feelings delivered via words-only media are especially likely to be misunderstood, and misperceptions are less easily corrected in them, too.  Make sure your medium always fits your message.

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