Trust, connection, longevity, and ultimately the success of your relationships depend on the quality of your communication. But communication is complex. It’s not just the words you speak. It’s your tone, posture, expressions, and gestures, too. And all of these elements need to come together at the same time for your intent and your message to be clear. You already know that what you say is important, but what percentage of communication is nonverbal? And what can you do to strengthen your nonverbal communication skills in a way that enhances your message and helps you build better, more human-centered relationships?
BombBomb Chief Evangelist Ethan Beute is a communication expert. He’s co-authored two books on the subject with BombBomb CMO Steve Pacinelli — the most recent being Human-Centered Communication: A Business Case Against Digital Pollution. Ethan has spent years researching communication and its effects on relationships. And much of this research focuses heavily on creating meaningful human-centered connections. A human-centered approach to communication considers your recipient — their emotions, experience, and needs — above your own.
Below, Ethan shares nuanced strategies, both his and those of other experts featured throughout Human-Centered Communication, for improving your nonverbal communication in a way that better signals your intent and leads to more meaningful conversations and relationships.
What Percentage of Communication is Nonverbal?
A search for “What percentage of communication is nonverbal?” usually results in the statistic that “93 percent of communication is nonverbal.” But this number misinterprets the research. That 93% is often referenced incorrectly out of context. You see, it’s based on research by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, who published two separate communication studies in 1967. Mehrabian then combined the results of these studies to produce a 55/38/7 formula that builds the total liking for a message.
The research (published in Mehrabian’s book Silent Message in 1971) highlights that for the receiver to find positive emotional effects in communication, they rely 7% on the words said, 38% on vocal elements and intonation, and 55% on facial cues. (38% plus 55% gives us the 93% — so most communication is nonverbal — that’s often shared.)
The criticism of these numbers is that the research was flawed. Some of those flaws? They were derived from the findings of two separate studies. The words used were individual (not in the context of a conversation) and geared around emotion, and only women participated.
But while they may not be entirely accurate, the findings are still relevant. Ethan points out that whether it’s 93%, 95%, or even 52% is inconsequential. The percentage of nonverbal communication doesn’t matter. Directionally, it’s true. Effective communication relies on more than words. It depends on the warmth you convey and the intent you demonstrate with facial cues, vocal elements, and body language, too.
Tips for Effective In-Person Non-Verbal Communication
Now that you understand more about the answers you’ll find for “What percentage of communication is nonverbal?” let’s talk about some practical ways to fine-tune your nonverbal communication skills to create more human-centered exchanges (and subsequent relationships) in person.
1. Read and Adapt to Emotion
In Human-Centered Communication, author, facial coding, and emotional intelligence (EQ) expert Dan Hill, Ph.D., says that our ability to create engagement relies on reading emotions and then adapting to them. It can be challenging to gauge (and then react in emotionally effective ways to) the feelings of others. But it’s ultimately something everyone is capable of with practice.
To do this, Dr. Hill says, take in the face of the person or people you’re communicating with. Are they smiling in happiness? Do their lips appear tight in anger? Are their eyebrows high with surprise? Then, react appropriately by conscientiously expressing your own emotions with your facial expressions.
2. Adjust Your Proximity
Where should you sit? Where should you stand? The answer ultimately depends on your relationship.
According to research that originated with Anthropologist Edward Hall, there are four zones of comfort when it comes to physical distance:
• Intimate: 18 inches to contact
• Personal: 18 inches to four feet
• Social: Four feet to 12 feet
• Public: 12 feet to 25 feet
And while the distances may have changed somewhat over time, the idea of comfort zones remains. The physical closeness between people should correspond directly to their relationships and the space they’re in.
But the essential takeaway from this strategy? Always adjust your physical proximity to meet everyone’s comfort level.
3. Mirror Culture
Social norms, behaviors, physical closeness, and more vary across cultures. From global regions to offices and even within the walls of a home — culture is different from place to place. Ethan says that your nonverbal communication should mirror that of the culture you find yourself in. As a result, engaging others on their level, how they’re most comfortable, reinforces the idea that you’re aligned with them.
Of course, that doesn’t mean to mimic all of the behaviors and mannerisms you see. But consider what’s respectful, comfortable, and appropriate within a culture and mirror that during your interaction.
4. Maintain (and Break) Eye Contact
According to a research study by Dartmouth College, eye contact signals shared attention during a conversation. It also helps build trust and genuine connection. But too much eye contact doesn’t leave space for new ideas to emerge.
The findings of Dartmouth’s research suggest that much like you pause in a conversation to take a breath or to reflect, you should also break eye contact in the same way. This break allows space for new thoughts, new points of conversation, and a higher level of authentic engagement.
5. Adopt Inviting Posture
Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone while they kept their arms crossed in front of them? It’s uninviting and conveys a lack of interest in the conversation. Worse yet, it carries the appearance of defensiveness.
So how can you use body language to demonstrate to others that you’re open to what they’re saying?
• Relax your shoulders
• Keep your head up
• Uncross your arms
• Lean slightly towards your recipient
This posture is more inviting. And it shows that you’re engaged and invested in the conversation.
Tips for Effective Digital Nonverbal Communication
When you don’t communicate in person, you eliminate face, posture, personality, enthusiasm, and expertise from your message. As a result, you’re missing a significant share of complete communication. Digital, face-to-face communication restores some of these elements when you can’t be there in person.
In addition, digital face-to-face communication also helps separate you from digital pollution by putting a face and voice with your name. Digital pollution is any unwelcome digital distraction. And it includes spam, bots, hacking, and other forms of digital communication that add friction and frustration to your life and work. (You can learn more about that here.)
So, what are some techniques to strengthen digital nonverbal communication?
6. Express Emotion
Dr. Hill says, “It’s more important to be on emotion than it is to be on message.” In Human-Centered Communication, he points out that being on emotion focuses on what you want others to experience. How do you want them to feel?
“If you come with the right spirit, intent, warmth, and motivation, and then you figure out what to say — you’re going to be more effective at communicating what you really mean.”
— Ethan Beute, BombBomb Chief Evangalist
You see, people tend to worry about saying the right words in the correct order rather than worrying about the emotion they’re demonstrating. When communicating virtually, this is especially prevalent. But scripted messages with minimal or even feigned emotion don’t carry the same weight. Lean into your true feelings around the subject, demonstrate confidence, and leverage that emotion to complement what you’re saying.
7. Adjust Your Tone and Expression
The intent of your message is conveyed in your facial expressions and tone. Expression (and reading expression) is fundamental and innate across the human species.
And while communicating from behind a screen can dampen these rich elements of communication, Ethan points out how important it is to amplify them when you’re speaking in a virtual space. He also says, “People judge how something is said, as much or more than, (and definitely earlier than) they’re judging what is being said.”
8. Use Your Hands
In Chapter 10 of Human-Centered Communication, author and Co-Founder of Vengreso, Viveka von Rosen, discusses how she teaches and trains those in sales to use video. One of her most effective nonverbal communication strategies? Use hand gestures!
Don’t sit with your hands in your lap or folded in front of you during a conversation. Move them! Your hand gestures add a feeling of personality and confidence. They also help create action that enhances the energy of a conversation.
9. Consider Camera Proximity
How far should you sit from your camera? Well, it’s unlikely that you’d have an in-person conversation from several feet outside of everyone’s physical comfort zone. And digital communication is no different.
Ethan says that to demonstrate close, conversational proximity in a virtual space, sit no more than two feet away from your camera. This distance gives a feeling of physical closeness — similar to what you’d find during an in-person interaction.
10. Turn up Emotional Volume
Dr. Nick Morgan is a communication expert and author featured throughout Human-Centered Communication. His expert stance on digital nonverbal communication? Virtual spaces are emotionally impoverished. And this absence of visual and emotional quality leads to the degradation of relationships over time.
In fact, according to Dr. Morgan, your five senses are always looking for feedback. And when emotions are muted (for instance, because you’re behind a screen), the brain fills in gaps with negative information as a primal survival tactic. And this negative information can actually contribute to bad decision-making. To prevent others from filling in gaps with negative assumptions, it’s vital to turn up your emotional volume.
11. Be Authentic
Human-Centered Communication features interviews with 11 business leaders. Their roles, strengths, responsibilities, and backgrounds vary. But one very prevalent theme found in almost every interview? Authenticity.
Sure, the shiny, polished version of you is appealing. And it’s easy to create a persona of perfection when you’re in front of a camera. But just as it’s easy to create this less authentic version of you, it’s also as easy to recognize. Perfection (or the appearance of perfection) doesn’t foster genuine relationships. Of course, professionalism is still essential. But what makes you human — your flaws, your vulnerability — is ultimately what makes you relatable. It’s the core of your humanity.
To build trust and connect with others, embrace the parts of you, your emotions, and your message that are appropriate for the occasion and reveal who you are.
Ready to Learn More About Human-Centered Communication?
The success of your relationships depends on your communication. And while the question, “What percentage of communication is nonverbal?” is relevant, the answer is about much more than the actual number itself. How you say something, the way you position yourself during conversation, your emotions and expressions — all of these elements matter a great deal.
Using the methods outlined above will help you refine your nonverbal communication skills. In turn, you’ll convey genuine intent that complements your messaging and enriches your conversations (and subsequently, your relationships) in a meaningful and more human-centered way.
Does the idea of human-centered communication resonate with you? Then check out Human-Centered Communication: A Business Case Against Digital Pollution. And take the first step towards restoring the trust, the genuine, and the human in your communication and your relationships today.
Beute, E., & Pacinelli, S. (2021). Human-Centered Communication: A Business Case Against Digital Pollution. Fast Company Press.