The Three V’s of Communication

In my workshops on public speaking, professional image, and foreign accent modification, we often discuss the Three V’s (Visual, Vocal, and Verbal) and their impact on communication. Many presentation coaches quote the landmark studies by Albert Mehrabian, PhD, that identify communication as 55% Visual, 38% Vocal, and 7% Verbal. This data is often misunderstood and generalized to all communication scenarios. However, this is actually not the case. Learn more about his study here.

In spite of the overuse and misuse of this data, these three V’s of communication are quite relevant. Depending on the communication scenario, the weight of one “V” over the other may shift. In certain situations, the verbal content is the most powerful, e.g., “Fire!”, or  “If I don’t receive your timesheet, you won’t get paid.” It doesn’t matter how it is said, the verbal content is dominant.

In general, it’s not just what we say, but how we say it, and how we look when we say it. When  delivering information, the non-verbal aspects of vocal tone and body language influence the actual verbal message. For example, stating “That’s great!” can be interpreted for its verbal content only and appear to be a positive statement.  However, if you change your tone to convey sarcasm, the message is changed. Add the visual component of rolled eyes and a shaking head, and the message is further altered. We must consider the visual, vocal, and verbal modalities when communicating and make sure that they support each other. When they are not congruent, the listener will often become confused and rely on the most dominant “V”.

Our visual features of posture, gestures, clothing, and facial expression all have an impact on making a first impression. Vocal quality influences whether we want to listen to someone. For example, a voice that is high-pitched, whining, breathy, harsh, loud, or a rich and resonant all affect the listener’s perception of the speaker. Of course, the verbal content of what we say is critical to the overall communication. We must consider all three V’s when communicating, regardless of what percentages each might hold. Delivery of speeches, presentations, sermons, homilies, opening and closing statements in a courtroom, lectures, and forums, all rely on these “V’s” for effective delivery.

Technology is limiting our use of these proverbial “V’s”.

– Telephone use: The listener loses the opportunity to observe body language and facial expression. Our vocal tone takes on even more importance.

– Email correspondence: There is no vocal tone or visual cues. We may resort to capitalization or emoticons to convey emotion. This is a breeding ground for many miscommunications. How often have you misinterpreted the intent of an email?

– Text messaging: We lose visual, vocal, and even some verbal aspects of the message; certainly spelling and grammar are modified.

– Tweeting: We are limited by the 140 characters, and verbal (grammar and spelling), visual (body language, facial expression), and vocal are all lost or compromised.

With the advance of technology, we are losing the rich and genuine aspects of communication. We must make every effort to ensure that our intentions are understood.  When we do meet someone face to face, keep in mind that we have all three V’s to communicate: VISUAL (how we look), VOCAL (how we sound), and VERBAL (what we say). Make sure each of these V’s are aligned to avoid any miscommunication and to convey a powerful and professional image and message.

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