Choosing the Right Words...Or Not

The woman spoke.  "I believe he is gone for good."

How do you interpret those words?  What is she feeling about the man's being gone?  Left as this is, you interpret this based on your own current circumstances, but what if I broaden your vision of what's occurring in this moment?

The woman's gaze drifted beyond us, her eyes losing their focus on the things around her.  A few moments later, she spoke, her voice soft and measured.  "I believe he is gone for good."

How do you interpret this woman's statement now?  Has it changed?

If you look only at the words she speaks, you can read any emotion you want into them, but once you take them within the context of the description, you realize there is more going on.

We probably don't know enough from this one passage to interpret it properly, but I wanted to show how the addition of body language, or nonverbal communication, and tone of voice can change the way you interpret someone's words.  Last night, at our writers' group, I found myself examining a fellow writer's passage, wanting a little more.  I suggested a beat, or some kind of description of the speaker's actions, in the middle of a character's statement.  Why?  I wanted more depth of understanding to the words spoken.

If we disect the passage above, the woman's body language adds emotion to her words:

The woman's gaze drifted beyond us, her eyes losing focus on the things around her.  A few moments later, she spoke...

In a brief, but revealing way, the passage provides depth through tone:

...her voice soft and measured.

How we interpret what people say.
According to research, when we speak to others face-to-face, only 7% of their understanding of our meaning comes from the words we say.  Fifty-five percent (55%!) of their understanding comes from our body language and 38% comes from our tone of voice.  Most people focus on choosing the correct words, getting them just right, especially if the message is difficult to deliver.  As writers, we tend to do the same thing.  We fail to consider what the speaker's, or our, face is telling the listener or reader, the set of his shoulders, the tilt of her head?  Does this person hunch over or stand stiff and straight as a board?  These details enrich the communication experience and provide clues to the person's thoughts and emotions beyond simple words.

Tone reveals even more.  People in my communication training classes often struggle with the term tone when I ask them to define it.  Many say it's attitude.  But what do we hear that tells us the speaker's attitude?

Tone has five variables:
  • Rate
  • Volume
  • Pitch
  • Emphasis
  • Enunciation
In the passage above, the woman's rate and volume show us a contemplative, maybe wistful, emotion.  If we knew more about who "he" is, how he left, and whether she liked him or not, we could pinpoint her emotions even more.

Just by focusing on the variables of body language and tone, our communications become richer and provide broader meaning to others.

Why is this important?  Hello?  55%-nonverbal, 38%- tone, 7%-words used.

What have you been missing in your communications or writing because of this?


Great post! That's why body language and dialogue cues can enhance a story.
Thanks Carole. This is a large part of my professional career, attempting to help others understand that their body language and tone carry far more weight than their words. Whether talking to someone casually, in business, or giving a presentation, or writing, we must think about the body language. It's so difficult because we haven't had formal training in nonverbal and tone. We interpret others without even noticing because we've done it all of our lives. It's second nature, so we don't think about it, we just do it. We need to bring it to our conscious mind (I struggle with this too).

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