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Words, Voice, Expression, and what?

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

Pocketblog has gone back to basics This is part of an extended management course.

Is there anything more to say about the famous Albert Mehrabian and his experiment that showed (or did it?) that, in conversation, our message is conveyed in words, voice and expression?

First, we need a refresher on Albert Mehrabian, because I don’t want to take your level of knowledge for granted.

Exercise: Research Albert Mehrabian

The Mehrabian Pie Chart

Mehrabian’s work is often represented as showing that our words, voice and expressions carry elements of our meaning in the ratios 7:38:55.  It doesn’t.  It shows, in just one experiment that has never been repeated, that, when our words, vocal style and expressions conflict with one another, then other people put most weight on our expressions and least on what we actually say.  I will make it easy with two excellent references:

  1. I wrote about this for Training Journal in July 2007
  2. An easier way still, to learn what Mehrabian really means is to watch the wonderful three and a half minute video by Creativity Works on YouTube.

The ‘and what?’

Without a doubt, your words, voice and expression all convey elements of your intended meaning.  But there is something very important that Mehrabian did not explore.  It often makes the difference between being understood quickly and accurately on the one hand, and being hard to understand, and even misunderstood, on the other: structure.

How you structure what you say has a profound effect on people’s attention levels, on their comprehension and, indeed, on your credibility as a speaker or writer.

Compare these two scenarios, for example:

Ami describes her insight in a rambling way, starting with what she was thinking and digressing from time to time, repeating herself and qualifying her comments.  When she finally stops, she looks up and says ‘do you follow me?’.  Most people nod, but think ‘no, sorry, I don’t’.

Bettina starts by saying ‘here is what I think’, then follows it up by saying ‘and here are three reasons why I believe this is correct’.  She gives the reasons, one after the other, then finishes by saying ‘so, to conclude, […] is well supported by the facts.’  … and she stops.

Who will be easier to follow and more persuasive?

A formula for structured responses

Persuade, convince and win arguments with clear and structured comments.

  1. This is what I noticed
  2. This is what I think
  3. This is why I think it (one, two or three reasons; maximum)
  4. Reiterate your conclusion

This is far from the only formula, but discipline in structuring what you say will not only make you more credible when you do speak, it will make people want to hear what you think.

Further Reading

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Sandwich Anyone?

There are one or two topics that get trainers hot under the collar.  My own pet peeve has always been the abuse by so many trainers of Albert Mehrabian’s work.  If you don’t know it, it’s the 55% – 38% – 7% ratios for facial, tonal and verbal communication.


Mehrabian_CreativityWorks3I wrote about this for Training Journal in July 2007 but frankly, the best way to learn what Mehrabian really means is to watch the wonderful three and a half minute video by Creativity Works on YouTube.

So with Mehrabian comprehensively dealt with …

The Myth of the Feedback Sandwich

The story goes like this:

If you want to give someone great feedback, first tell them the things they do well, then tell them what they need to do better, and then, to avoid them losing too much confidence; remind them of their successes.  Voila: the feedback sandwich’







Picture By SweetOnVeg

The feedback sandwich was a popular staple of management training courses when I was on the receiving end, in the early 1990s.  It probably still is.

Round 2: The Feedback Sandwich is rubbish

Most trainers now, rightly, eschew the feedback sandwich.  The argument goes like this:

All it is, is sugaring the pill.  When you re-iterate the good stuff, they will forget the filling in the middle.  It’s easier to focus on the good stuff and, anyway, we always remember the start of something and the end – that’s what I say in my Presentation Skills training.

And that is all very credible – if a little bluntly expressed.  I think I remember hearing myself say that once upon a time.

Round 3: Rehabilitating the Sandwich

Let’s think about the psychology of good communication.  After all, that is a pre-requisite for good feedback.

Before you can get any complex message across, you have to build a measure of rapport.  When you tell me what I have done well, I will probably recognise some of it, feel pleased that you have too, and start to trust you a little bit.  I am listening now.

So, when you have told me all the good news, I am listening hard.  And, because I trust that you have observed my performance carefully, I will listen to what else you have to say.  Don’t squander that: give me an evidence-based assessment of what I need to do differently to raise my performance to a higher level.

That can be quite a draining process, when done well.  So I may need some help processing it.  So that I don’t feel knocked back and alone, end our conversation by reminding me that, no matter how critical you have had to be about some aspects of my performance, you will continue to support me.

There’s the sandwich.  But now, the last component is not sugaring the pill, but forming a base to go forward.  The top is a nice tasty bun with seeds.  The middle is filling and nutritious.  The base is firm and supports the rest.  It’s a burger; a feedback burger! *

4239047183_11c5ba5ceb_m[1] Picture By SweetOnVeg

So here’s the deal

  1. Don’t cite the 55-38-7 rule without reading my article, watching the video or researching Mehrabian’s work properly and
  2. When you give feedback, pay attention to the stages of your communication process, and the needs of the person you are supporting.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

9781906610128 The Feedback Pocketbook

The Communicator’s Pocketbook

The Developing People Pocketbook

The People Manager’s Pocketbook

9781903776285The Performance Management Pocketbook

The Appraisals Pocketbook




* Thank you to my friend, Leigh Grainger, for introducing me to the phrase ‘Feedback Burger’.

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