Simon Fowler's Blog

:p How do you show feelings and attitudes in live online learning?

Posted by Simon on March 30, 2010

The good news is that words matter.

If you think by that I mean, “words?! pah! who cares about words?!”, then you didn’t read the sentence properly. Or you think I’m being sarcastic. Context will tell you if you’re right – context given by your knowledge of me as a person, and your knowledge of other things I’ve written. But absent those, the words mean what they say. They may be factually incorrect – maybe words don’t matter – but the sentence means what it says.

It’s commonly believed that 7% of communication is verbal; the rest is body language and tone of voice. Along with many people, I took that for granted, even though it made no intuitive sense to me, especially when thinking about learning live online.

But if you didn’t know already, the 7% is a myth; or rather, it’s a fact that’s only true in certain cases.

The original researcher, Professor Albert Mehrabian, looked at situations in which people say one thing and mean something else in a face to face situation. According to Mehrabian, the 7% holds true only when talking about feelings and attitudes. In those cases if you say one thing but indicate something else with your tone and gesture, the something else (the non-verbal 93%) will dominate the substance your communication. So the statistic seems to only matter if the non-verbal and verbal are in conflict. (See Training Zone, especially the video by Martin Shovel, shown also below).

However, this still rings true online if a facilitator says, “hey, like, yeh, this is going to be, like, yaaaawn, really fun … let’s do some really engaging interactive stuff on a whiteboard now, yaaawn”. It’s obvious, now that I think about it, that it’s the dissonance between the mode and content of speech that makes us largely ignore the content. Equally obvious is that words matter when mode and content are consistent: “You are, in fact, an idiot.”

The 7% is (mis)used to make an important point, however: Yes, words matter, but words are not always a necessary, adequate, or even feasible way to communicate. Especially when communicating feelings and attitudes.

So, here’s the question: how are feelings and attitudes communicated online, in a virtual classroom setting? What’s the real data about the relative power of mode or content in live, online communication?

And how do you show your feelings online, in an online classroom? Come on, you can tell me.


4 Responses to “:p How do you show feelings and attitudes in live online learning?”

  1. When we finished our Mehrabian animation last summer, we sent it to the BBC. A couple of weeks later Tim Harford – of BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ – broadcast an interview with Albert Mehrabian. Here’s a link to it: The interview begins about 20 minutes into the programme – I think you, and your readers, will find it worth listening to.


    • sifowler said

      Thanks so much for the comment and the link, Martin. Your video is excellent and an breath of fresh air to the intellect! Do you happen to know of research relating to online communication (in 2-d live ‘webinar’ and/or in 3-d virtual world) ?

      [btw – I couldn’t get that link to work. I’m based in the US but I think it’s broken for some other reason.]

  2. Hey Simon! I’m finally tuning into your blog – which looks fantastic. Thanks for this post – interesting. I don’t have any data to share with you, but I do have some notes from my recent experiences, deliving workshops in the virtual world. Here are a few things that I’ve noticed:

    – I speak much more slowly.
    – I speak in shorter sentences.
    – I speak more loudly and with greater drama.
    – I work from highly organized notes (in some cases a script) so that I don’t wander off on tangents.
    – I use inflection, tone, and pitch to greater effect (in some cases exaggerating way beyond what I would do in a f2f communication).
    – I ask for feedback much, much often than I do in a f2f interaction (this comes in the form of short answers to questions, asking everyone to type something into chat, asking people to move to set locations in order to “vote” with their feet, etc). Without the benefit of body language and facial expressions to guide me, I find that I have to ask for meaningful feedback waaaay more often.

    How do those match up with what you’ve been reading/thinking?

    • sifowler said

      Hey Robin! Thanks for visiting & commenting. Great to see you here!

      Your points largely concur with my experience in virtual sessions at Forum, and with the recent Synchronous Facilitator Certificate I completed with InSync Training.

      The habits you’ve developed combine to address the two most basic elements of participant engagement: emotional and, well, actual! The slowness, drama and inflection of speech enables them to take you seriously as a flesh & blood, multidimensional human being; the shortness, focus and feedback opportunities elicit reaction and actual participation. For verbose, speak-in-the-moment people like me this seems a very demanding list! But it seems an inevitable result of being unrelentingly focused on the participants & the end purpose of the session.

      So if these elements succeed in engaging people emotionally, then to what degree do you find them repaying the compliment? I mean, do you find that people more readily express their feelings & attitudes? If so, how do they do it? And do they all do it, or just a few? It’s a question about individual participants, but it’s also a question of scale. Then there’s the question of your ability to ‘read’ all their reactions. How do you do that?

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