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“It’s Not What You Say, It’s HOW You Say It.”

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Composite picture of the author showing three different facial expressions: thinking, happy, annoyed
Your expressions can greatly impact communication.

Heard that one before? Probably something your mom said to you. Research backs that up.

In the 1960s, a famous study was done by Dr. Albert Mehrabian and his team which looked at face to face communication. In this study, they found communication is impacted by other factors than words, i.e. tone of voice and body language.

pie chart showing components of communication: Body Language 55%, tone of voice 38%, words, 7%

As you can see, communication is about so much more than the words you say. It’s definitely affected by the body language and tone of voice used when the words are said.

Consider this one, little word—a small word that can convey so many different things:


This little word can be:

  • Happy

  • Annoyed

  • Sad

  • Surprised

  • Angry

  • Skeptical

  • Sarcastic, and so on...

If we’re relying solely on the words, we could easily misinterpret what the speaker is trying to convey. Have you ever sent a text that was totally misinterpreted? If so, you know what I’m saying.

Knowing this, how do we decipher what the speaker is trying to communicate? We can get big clues from the body language used. Let’s review our “Oh” list:

  • Happy – said with a smile!

  • Annoyed – said with a sigh

  • Sad – said with a downcast face and maybe a tear or two

  • Surprised - said with wide open eyes and, perhaps, a smile

  • Angry – said with a frown

  • Skeptical – said with a cocked eyebrow

  • Sarcastic, said with a smirk, and so on…

The non-verbal aspect of communication is so important, and never more so than on the job. In order to work well with our colleagues, converse with our clients, and just generally communicate with others day-to-day, we have to pay attention to their body language when speaking to us, and our own body language when we’re speaking to them. This seems so obvious, yet we see breakdowns in communication all the time—generally attributed to people making assumptions about what others are saying.

So, it’s time we focused on the non-verbal aspects of communication, both as speakers and as listeners.

When we’re speaking, it’s important we use body language that expresses how we would like our message to be interpreted. Here’s an example—Sometimes my husband and I have moments when we’re not quite… pleased… with each other. He might ask me what’s bothering me, and I’m likely to answer “Nothing. It’s fine.” (Sound familiar?) But if he’s paying attention, he’ll be able to tell from my body language that things are most certainly not fine. And if he does pay attention, we’re going to move to a resolution much more quickly.

What about in the workplace? Let’s say you’re in a meeting. People are talking and contributing all around the room. Yet, there is one person who is sitting quietly. A quick look would tell you they're detached and the crossed arms indicate they're bothered by something. Perhaps what they're communicating, via their body language, is how much the conversation is alienating them.

This simple thing is so important to understand. The non-verbal signals you give off will override the words you say. If you want your message to come across as you intend, you have to align all three communication factors—your words, tone of voice, and body language.

Try this!

The next time you’re walking down the street, try making eye contact with a passerby and smile. That non-verbal act of communication will very likely prompt the other person to smile in return. It’s a small experiment that will make two people happy i.e. the passerby and you. That little smile will communicate that you are friendly and wish them well—and you haven’t said a word!

Although humans have naturally communicated with each other for millennia, we still seem to have challenges with how our messages are interpreted. Remember the advice from above—you have to align all three communication factors—your words, tone of voice, and body language.


Does your team need help with communication? Ask us about how we incorporate this subject into our courses, or how we can build an a la carte communication course for you. Not sure it’s important for your company? Consider this. Communication, including non-verbal communication, is a soft skill that can have a huge impact on employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and, by extension, productivity and the bottom line. Seems pretty important after all.


C-Change Learning and Development provides training for managers. Ask about:

Leading with RESPECT for existing managers, and Learning to Lead for new managers and high-potentials.

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