Albert Mehrabian might be the most misquoted researcher in history. People have used his findings to argue that most communication is nonverbal, which is clearly (and provably) nonsense.
His research showed that we like people if what they say about their feelings matches non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and body language.
If there isn’t a match we tend to trust the non-verbal cues more. In other words, if you say “Oh, how fascinating, do go on.” while looking around and shuffling your feet, I’ll conclude that you’re not that interested in what I’m saying.
This principle of matching, or congruence, is really important for customer experience design and storytelling.
What’s beneath the surface?
That’s the key question. Strip away the words, and what do the non-verbal cues and signals say to the customer? “Your call is very important to us.”…yeah, right.
Gerald Zaltman’s classic book “How Customers Think” is a great starting point for thinking about the unconscious cues that can have a big influence on the customer experience.
Say what you mean, mean what you say
Authenticity is a much abused word. “How do you do authenticity?” a drinks company executive apparently once asked Innocent Drinks. Authenticity is not something you do, it’s something you are.
That doesn’t mean you have to wash all your dirty linen in public, but it does mean you have to tell the truth, and you have to keep your promises (explicit and implicit). Making sure there’s good congruence between what you say and what you do ties directly back to Mehrabian’s work.
Show, don’t tell
Maybe I’m unusually cynical, but I instinctively assume the opposite of any adjectives that people or organisations apply to themselves. Don’t tell me you’re reliable, show me by consistently delivering.
Beyond your behaviour, it’s more powerful to embed messages about yourself in implicit claims through branding than it is to claim them in words. Don’t tell me you’re innovative, show me through your design choices. We’re usually less cynical about messages that appeal to our unconscious mind (try watching an emotional film without the music track and you’ll be amazed how little impact it has on you).
Tell the whole story
Turn to advertising to learn how to tell stories that communicate at the verbal and non-verbal levels simultaneously. Notice how they put the factual messages in the verbal channel, and emotional persuasion in the visuals, music, metaphor, etc.
Take cleaning products as an example. If you transcribe the advert all you’d see is factual claims (“kills 99.9% of germs fast”), but the power of these ads is in the emotional triggers around disgust and fear (the image of a mother wiping her child’s highchair with a raw chicken breast.
Good storytelling uses the respective strengths of verbal and non-verbal channels to multiply impact with rational and emotional messages that support each other.