Communication 101: What You Say and How You Say It

by Alli Polin on March 28, 2016

communication it's not what you say but how you say it

When I was in college, I ran an acting program at a local camp. Our goals were to teach the kids some craft, put on a production and, of course, have fun. Since that time, I’ve used many of my acting lessons and applied them to leadership.

Acting teaches us to take words and create layers of meaning with even the simplest of phrases. As leaders, lovers, and parents, we do the same.

“That was a setback, but we’re going to figure this out.”

Imagine that you heard those words on a big project that hit an unexpected roadblock. They, and the leader who said them could inspire you to regroup, reassess and move forward or fill you with emptiness and hopelessness.

Communication 101: What You Say And How You Say It

Your words matter and have a remarkable impact on others. However, only when your words, tone, and body language work together do you truly tell a compelling story. (If you haven’t watched Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk, you should.)

Albert Mehrabian studied communication in the early 1970’s, and his research is attributed with the 7%-38%-55% rule.


Words: 7%

Tone: 38%

Body Language: 55%

While his findings have been challenged over the years, with greater weight given to tone, his rule is often quoted. Particularly in the social age, with increasingly dispersed workforces, less and less communication and interaction face-to-face; tone becomes even more important.

Your tone can intimidate or create a bond, annoy or inspire.

When tone, words and physicality are a mismatch what happens? People experience confusion and lose faith.

Think back to your most recent exchanges at home and work.

How often did you try to convince someone that you’re not annoyed but they could tell that you were?

How many times did you fail to inspire because your words lacked conviction?

How frequently did you speak to shut someone up instead of truly engaging – even when saying words that were positive and encouraging on face value?

When you’re distracted or all in your head, and not in the moment, it’s easy to say the right thing with the wrong impact.

Effective Communication Takes Awareness and Intention

I’m not suggesting that you learn how to lie more effectively by watching your tone, but instead, understand the impact of your words and ensure that words and intention are in alignment.

One of my favorite exercises to do with my acting students was “Yes and No.” I’ve used this exercise in my corporate training classes too.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Have students get into pairs.
  2. One person starts with “yes” and the other “no.” (Trade halfway through)
  3. They only say a single word (“yes” or “no”)
  4. Every time it goes back and forth, say it a different way.
  5. Questioning, excited, sad, indifferent, etc.
  6. Change it up by only using your voice and tone in some exchanges and in others focus on your body language.
  7. Continue playing when tone and body language are a mismatch and when they are aligned.

If you don’t have a buddy to play with, I encourage you to set a date with the bathroom mirror. Watch yourself and listen to yourself as you play. How many feelings can you express with that one simple word?

Break the Frame Action:

Moving forward, catch yourself. When your words and tone are out of alignment, stop speaking. Even if it feels risky, make a change. Maybe you need a quick break or to adjust the message.

Never forget: Impact follows intention.

The next time you want to express your idea with confidence and competence, ensure there is not a disconnect between what you say and how you say it. Practice until you own it and learn to embody it; you won’t regret it.


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Cynthia Bazin March 28, 2016 at 7:25 am

Excellent reminders Alli! Wishing you an absolutely awesome day. It is definitely GO TIME!!!


Alli Polin March 29, 2016 at 2:24 am

Thanks!!! Big yes to GO TIME! 🙂

Appreciate you, Cindy.

~ Alli


Terri Klass March 28, 2016 at 11:13 am

Excellent post, Alli!

How we share our message totally overshadows what are actual words may be. We see this in the workplace when conflict arises. It’s usually not the words that create havoc, but rather the non-verbal tone and body language. I love your “yes” “no” exercise! I will definitely try it. I use a similar activity where we take the four words, “May I help you?” and say it as a bored, angry, rushed or happy person. Same four words end up with four different meanings.

Thanks Alli and will definitely share!


Alli Polin March 29, 2016 at 2:24 am

Agree with you, Terri. Our words are often betrayed by our tone. Delivering a message through clenched teeth while seething anger nobody will ever believe that everything’s okay. Our inflection gives weight to our message and ensures that it lands as intended.


~ Alli


Joan McLeod March 28, 2016 at 9:59 pm

The 7% 38% 55% stats are challenged only because the research was regarding expression of emotional communication. Thais means your point is all the more important – be cautious with tone, expression and words where people are or may be vulnerable to meaning and connection.


Alli Polin March 29, 2016 at 2:22 am

Absolutely!! Thanks for adding this point, Joan. Well said!

Many thanks,



Chery Gegelman March 29, 2016 at 3:09 am

Great post Alli!

I got caught up in the last line. “Never forget: Impact follows intention.”

Yes our words, tone and body language can be clues to how we are really feeling. But even if we can pull those things together – people hear what is in our hearts.


Alli Polin March 29, 2016 at 4:00 am

There are times when having someone hear our heart, even when we want to keep it all hidden would be a gift. There are also times when we try so hard to deceive, that we drive people away instead of inviting them in – not a way to live.

Thanks for your insight, Chery!



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