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Home » Communication in the 21st Century: Is It What You Say, Not How You Say It: Vivian Ta (Transcript)

Communication in the 21st Century: Is It What You Say, Not How You Say It: Vivian Ta (Transcript)

Here is the full text and summary of researcher Vivian Ta’s talk titled “Communication in the 21st Century: Is It What You Say, Not How You Say It? at TEDx KitchenerED conference. In this talk, she argues how and why verbal behaviors, rather than nonverbal behaviors, are most critical in today’s digital society.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Vivian Ta – Psychology researcher

What’s more important in communication, “What you say?” or “How you say it?”

Generally, the consensus tends to lean more towards how we say things: our body language, or our non-verbal behaviors, as social scientists call it.

And if you look online, you’ll quickly find this to be true.

Most of the attention historically and currently has been paid towards the importance of non-verbal behavior within communication, because non-verbals supply a lot of information that isn’t projected or supplied verbally.

In fact, as I was looking up examples for this talk, I even came across an article titled “What TED talks speakers teach us about presenting”. And one of the things that they focus on is the power of nonverbal. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, or is it?

I want to challenge that perhaps what we say: our verbal behaviours are much more important than we realize. Perhaps what we say has been so much more important now than it ever has been before in history. And perhaps we’ve been focusing on the wrong aspect of communication for a while.

But first I want to step back and talk a little bit more about communication in general. One of the most important things about communication is having other people understand what you’re saying, establishing mutual understanding. After all, communicating can be quite difficult if no one can really understand each other.

And so how do people actually even develop a mutual understanding for each other in the first place?

Well, previously researchers and writers have suggested that the development of common ground understanding is largely dependent on interaction partners coming to use the same words in essentially the same way.

However, researchers weren’t able to test this empirically in order to determine if it’s true or not, because there hadn’t been anything that could measure what they wanted to measure, which was the extent to which interaction partners use the same words in essentially the same way.

Fortunately though, in recent decades, a new measure called latent semantic similarity or LSS as they will be referring to it as, was proposed to be such measure.

And so what exactly is LSS?

So LSS is a measure that is assessed by using a program called latent semantic analysis, which is an automated statistical method that establishes the contextual meaning of any text by analyzing the relationship among the words that are used.

In other words, the LSS measure determines how similar two blocks of texts or two groups of words are to each other based on the words that are used and how those words are used in relation to other words.

So for example, if I’m talking to one of my friends about our weekend plans, the LSS measure would first take all the words that I say, compare it against all of the words that my friend says and determine the amount of shared meaning that exists between us within our conversation.

And so, as someone who’s studied social psychology and someone who is especially interested in how people come to understand each other, especially the processes and the behaviors that underlie it, my colleagues and I decided to test this measure in order to determine if it can actually be a legitimate measure of how much people understand each other.

And so in our very first study, which has been published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, we analyzed a sample of videotaped recordings. And in these recordings were a series of initial interactions between pairs of strangers who had just met for the very first time. And so they had never met before. And so they were having a conversation for the first time ever with each other.

And so we analyzed this and we also analyzed and measured a wide variety of nonverbal and verbal behaviors that occurred within these interactions. And we found that the LSS measure was indeed a legitimate measure of how much people understood each other.

So now we have something that can empirically measure this. Great!

So next, we wanted to determine the behaviors that would significantly predict high levels of mutual understanding. In other words, what were the behaviors that were most important when you are communicating with someone and you want to establish common ground understanding?

And so in our second study, we again analyzed two completely separate samples of initial interactions that occurred between pairs of strangers again.  And then we also analyzed a wide variety of verbal and non-verbal behaviors. And we found that the only behavior that consistently predicted how much people understood each other were their verbal behaviors – the amount of talking that they engaged in and how many questions they asked each other.

All of the other behaviors like gestures or smiling, laughing, gazes, nonverbal acknowledgements, all of these nonverbal behaviors were not essential for the development of common ground understanding.

Now that doesn’t mean that nonverbal behaviors are not important in communication. They are important to when it comes to creating an emotionally pleasant and involving interaction, but they’re not important when it comes to developing mutual understanding with each other.

And what is important is what we say, the words that we use. And so the science behind this is only one reason why I argue that we should be really focusing more on what we say rather than how we say it.

The second reason and perhaps more important reason is the internet. The internet has drastically changed how we communicate with each other on a daily basis and it has done so in a very, very short amount of time.

As most of you will probably remember the internet became publicly available in the 1990s. And up until then people primarily communicated either in person over the telephone or sent letters, to name a few.

Today, how do we primarily communicate? We send each other emails, we send each other text messages. We send each other instant messages. We comment on each other’s Facebook statuses. We tweet. If you’re on an online dating website, which is becoming increasingly popular, and if you see someone that you’re interested in, what do you do? You send them a message.

We engage in this form of communication so much every day. And it has literally allowed us to communicate with anybody on the planet, at the touch of our fingertips, whether or not that person is halfway across the world, or if that person is right next to us.

The internet and the technological advances that have resulted from it have made communication so much easier and has changed the face of communication just in general.

And the resulting different types of communication all have one thing in common: They’re all primarily text-based. They consist solely upon the words that we use, our verbal behaviors.

No one is going to know whether or not you had shifty eyes or that you were nervously twiddling your thumbs whenever you send a text message or an email or an instant message. 

Our body language — our non-verbals — don’t really matter in this type of communication that dominates our everyday lives. And yet we continue to focus on it.

And again, I don’t believe that non-verbal behaviors are not important. They are. But if we are to live in a society where we primarily engage in this type of communication where this type of communication is so largely intertwined with our sense of self, our wellbeing and our livelihood, we should adapt accordingly.

And we should begin to place more importance on the behavior that we engage in the most — and that has the most influence: the words that we use.

We should be focusing more on what we say rather than how we say it.

Thank you very much.

Want a summary of this talk? Here it is.


Vivian Ta’s talk, titled “Communication in the 21st Century: Is It What You Say, Not How You Say It?” challenges the conventional wisdom that non-verbal communication is more important than verbal communication. In her presentation, she makes several key points:

1. Historical Emphasis on Non-Verbal Communication: Ta begins by acknowledging the historical emphasis on non-verbal communication, including body language and non-verbal cues. She highlights the prevailing belief that how you say something matters more than what you say.

2. Importance of Mutual Understanding: Effective communication is about establishing mutual understanding between individuals. Ta argues that the primary goal of communication is for people to comprehend each other’s messages, which can be challenging if they don’t share common ground.

3. Introduction of Latent Semantic Similarity (LSS): Ta introduces the concept of Latent Semantic Similarity (LSS) as a measure to assess how much shared meaning exists in a conversation. LSS is determined by analyzing the words used and their contextual relationships, providing a quantitative way to measure mutual understanding.

4. Verbal Behaviors as Predictors: In her research, Ta and her colleagues found that verbal behaviors, particularly the amount of talking and the number of questions asked, were the most significant predictors of mutual understanding in interactions between strangers. Other non-verbal behaviors such as gestures and smiles were not as crucial for achieving common ground.

5. The Changing Landscape of Communication: Ta points out that the internet and technological advancements have revolutionized communication. With the predominance of text-based communication through emails, text messages, social media, and online dating, non-verbal cues like body language have become less relevant.

6. The Need to Adapt: Given the shift toward text-based communication, Ta argues that society should place more importance on verbal behaviors and the words people use. While she acknowledges the importance of non-verbal behaviors in other contexts, she emphasizes that adapting to the changing landscape of communication requires a focus on verbal communication.

7. Conclusion: Ta concludes by advocating for a greater emphasis on what we say rather than how we say it, especially in the context of modern communication dominated by text-based interactions. She believes that this shift in focus will lead to more effective and meaningful communication.

In summary, Vivian Ta’s talk challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the importance of non-verbal communication and highlights the significance of verbal behaviors, especially in the context of the internet and text-based communication. She argues that adapting to this changing landscape requires prioritizing the words people use to achieve mutual understanding in the 21st century.

Resources for Further Reading:

The ‘Art’ of Communication: Jimmy Nelson (Transcript)

The 110 Techniques of Communication & Public Speaking: David JP Phillips (Transcript)

Amy Scott: Build, Don’t Break Relationships With Communication – Connect The Dots at TEDxQueenstown (Transcript)

Louise Evans: Own Your Behaviours, Master Your Communication, Determine Your Success (Transcript)

Full Transcript: Pellegrino Riccardi on Cross Cultural Communication at TEDxBergen

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