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It is What You Say, Not How You Say It
Copyright © 2008 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth


During a recent course at which I was a student (my job for a large corporation was in the area of alliance management and required frequent skill updates so as to keep one focused on the essentials of the profession), the topic of communication was presented. The instructor made a most interesting claim, "Only 7% of the communication in a dialogue between two people is the verbal content."

This statistical assumption is meant to illustrate that oneís tone of voice, body position, and hand gestures convey more message content than the actual words used. This assumption has become pervasive in Christian thought today. How many Christians have been confronted with the statement, "Itís not what you say, it is how you say it"?

My apologies to the psychologists who came to the 7% conclusion just discussed, however, I do not believe this assertion at all. Here is why.

Communication theory informs that a communication is composed of:


Successful communication, according to the theory, is when the originator conveys the message content in such a way as to cause the recipient to understand and interpret the message content according to his original intent, and then the recipient is able to provide feedback that confirms he correctly comprehended the intended message.

Simple. Yet, if only 7% of the message content is found within the actual words, then 93% of the content is found in body positions, hand movements, environment, and voice inflections.

This is surely a testable assertion. So let us do so.

If I say to my wife, "Close the door," I have sent an intended message. What is my intent? That she respond (provide feedback) by closing the door. If she closes the door, I may assume the message was successful, and if she tells me, "Ok, I just shut the door" the message loop has been fully closed.

If a message is truly 93% nonverbal, and the most important of the meanings communicated in voice tone and gestures, then presumably, an entirely nonverbal message can be successfully sent that will achieve far superior results than messages that are spoken in monotone words alone (bearing in mind that there is a difference between non-vocal communication and nonverbal--one may vocalize sounds that are in no way understandable words). Why should nonverbal messages be superior to verbal messages? Because the assumption is that 93% of the meaning is imbued into the message by gesture and voice tone, not by language. Thus, one could discard the words entirely and still achieve a 93% comprehension rate on any "verbal" message. Yet ordinary daily experience regularly undermines the 93% assumption.

For example, I grunt to my wife, "um, ugh, arghhh." She calls back, "What did you mean to say?" So I gesture wildly, and grunt, "um, ugh, arghhhh." She walks over to my chair and slaps me in the back of the head, or, she calls for emergency medical response fearing I have had a stroke. Absolutely no meaningful messages have been communicated.

Without words there is rarely any meaning in any communication, no intended message is passed. Since only the verbal content generates the root meaning, by the sheer weight of priority now placed upon language, the words must transport the majority of the messageís meaning (51%, 70%, 90%, more ?). Voice tone and gestures merely add some degree of socio-environmental context, or secondary understanding, to the real message. But make no mistake, the core message is bound largely to the words.

For example, the primary intended meaning of the message was, "Close the door." What mood was I in when I gave the instruction to close the door? Was this an urgent request or merely one that could be completed at any time without consequence? These are all questions for which an answer can be inferred from gestures and voice tones. However, such inferences do not generate the primary meaning of the message, they simply enhance it, or at least, potentially enhance it.

Secondary and environment-driven contextual meanings can themselves be easily misunderstood because they are inferred meanings which are not based on the verbal content. These inferences assume that the message sender and the message recipient both use nonverbal signals in the same way, with the same intent, with the same rules and criteria. This is rarely the case in the real world. Secondary meanings are often no more than guesses about the hidden and secret motives of the heart, and should be treated as such.

Why do I want the door closed? An angry tone of voice may imply that closing the door is long overdue. Or perhaps that closing the door is a standing rule. Or perhaps that I had a very hard day and am irritated at myself for not having done it myself when I entered the house. In any case, secondary meanings are error-prone methods of comprehending the original message. If you really want to know why I want the door closed, you still have to ask, and you must ask using words, but first, close the door.

Relate this to the Bible and to church. God did not leave us video tapes or DVDs of the apostles and prophets recorded live as they delivered their messages. All 100% of the meaning and content of these messages are communicated by way of their written words. God does not intend for us to infer the meaning of 93% of His instructions by using the art (magic?) of nonverbal secondary or environmental contextual guesswork. He gave us the instructions in text form only. All the Bible is in text form only. It is for this reason that we must diligently study the words themselves to determine the actual meaning of the messages they deliver.

Without words, there is no message to which we can add secondary meaning. And secondary meanings can be greatly misunderstood by the recipient because they are composed almost entirely of assumptions and do not rest upon centuries of carefully refined and scrupulously codified definitions, which by contrast comprise the elements of spoken language as found in dictionaries and lexicons.

While it is true that the simpler the message the more likely it is that hand gestures or voice tone provide a greater aid in comprehending the meaning of the message. However, in virtually all spiritual dialogue the content is anything but simple, and often the spiritual principles are counter intuitive. Do good to your enemies. Spank the child if you love him. Such concepts are not communicated nonverbally.

Since words have rich meaning all on their own, when we use them, we must be aware, both as recipients and originators, that the words carry the abundant part of the message. Any inferences that are made are guesswork and should be given minimal consideration. All such inferences, and all questions related to better understanding the core message and the reason the core message was given must be responded to with questions. Ask the message sender, "Why?" "Why did you say this? Did you mean to convey anger with your tone of voice? At whom was this emotion directed and for what cause?" No one knows the heart of a man. So explicitly ask the man to reveal his heart.

Similarly, when a preacher gives a sermon, the most relevant parts of the message come via the spoken language. If secondary messages are received by the modes of voice tone and gesturing, and these messages appear to be inconsistent with the words, ask the preacher for his intentions. And when they are explained, be willing to accept them and believe them. No one knows the heart or thoughts of a man except the man himself. Love will accept that a man means just what he says (1 Corinthians 13).

Finally, when a manís words are proven false, he must own them. If a man claims that the Word endorses a given doctrine, yet, it can be shown from an abundance of Scripture that such a thing is not true, he must be willing to admit he taught improperly and to discontinue doing so. Those whose messages are false based on their words being untrue cannot be redeemed by even the most generous use of secondary and environmental social context. No amount of soft-spokeness, sincerity of voice, or cleverness in turning a phrase should be permitted to gain greater import than the truth of the words used.

Words drive the meaning of the message. Words have meaning. Voice tone and gestures supply inferred context--implications of unsubstantiated explanations of "Why"--yet, these inferences must be confirmed with direct verbal questioning. No one knows the heart or secret thoughts of man, regardless of how quiet his voice or how violent his hand gestures. And until someone speaks words, writes words, or uses a recognizable language (such as the international sign language used by the hard-of-hearing), the true message will not be delivered.

Imagine communicating this message without using words, "For by grace you are saved by faith, and not that of yourself, it is the free gift of God." No amount of voice tone or hand gesticulations will substitute for a timely and truthful Bible verse.

So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9)

At their most elemental, messages, especially those as eternally relevant as the gospel of Christ, are communicated almost exclusively in words. What we do and how we speak may enhance or undermine the integrity and the power of the message, but the core message itself is heard in words. It is what you say and not how you say it that matters most.

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:14)

So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)



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Page Originally Posted: March 6, 2008
Page Last Revised: March 6, 2008