Meta-messages – it’s not what you say but how you say it

February 21, 2017 Tarmo Tamm
I’ve worked in sales in both private and business sectors and sold very different products and services. Every project has offered new lessons and challenges. Without a doubt, short-term sales cycle projects, where you sell products to the end consumer, have helped me to improve my skills the most. I am especially grateful for the lessons I’ve learned while selling and approaching people actively at shopping centres.

People have a lot of opinions about direct sales in shopping centres – some respect the thick skin of the people doing it, while others find them annoying.

It might not be the most prestigious of jobs, but the fact is that active selling in shopping centres is probably the best way to improve your skills.

When starting to work in sales, I quickly noticed how my effectiveness in convincing people can differ by several times, despite using the same script word by word every day. As a sales manager and as a colleague I saw how my team members could follow the same script and use the exact same words, but their results would differ by several hundred percent. So it wasn’t about the text but how it was used.

It took a lot of time and tremendous amounts of energy to reach deeper than this conclusion and to establish a game-plan that could be taught to others. I had to make thousands of product presentations and analyse thousands of sales situations to understand what exactly to do and, more importantly, what to avoid.

Everyone knows that being in a bad mood is bad for sales. The fact that salespeople have superficial knowledge of things like that doesn’t mean that they can or know how to actually control meta-messages. What if we would go deeper than the basic conversational politeness and concentrate on actually convincing someone? How would we actually say something and what would we avoid?

Only 7% of the message lies in the words

While communicating, the message is conveyed not only with words, but also using body language and tone of voice. Professor Emeritus Albert Mehrabian of the University of California says that emotions and attitude are passed on to others more by using body language and tone of voice than words. When conveying a message, the words make up 7%, tone of voice 38%, and body language 55%. When the words of a speaker convey a different message than his or her tone of voice, then the latter is usually taken into account. Subconsciously even more attention is given to body language.

Information conveyed during communication in addition to words is described as “meta-messages” and “meta-communication”. Meta-messages are conveyed both intentionally and unwillingly with the tone of voice and body language, and they give information about how words should be interpreted.

The concept of a meta-message is easy to explain even using a one word example. If you ask your significant other: “Are you OK?” and he or she replies with only “Yes”, then what could it mean? How could you interpret the response?

Usually you take into account the partner’s body language and tone of voice. He or she might use words to say yes, but what is the meta-communication like? Is he or she rolling eyes? Is he or she avoiding eye contact? Is he or she brief and impatient? Is he or she smiling? Even being silent can be significant.

Words, body language, and tone of voice may all carry a different message

A survey carried out by psychologist Michael Argyle of Oxford University in 1971 found that when the verbal and non-verbal messages contradict, it is five times more likely that the non-verbal messages are believed. Non-verbal hints are often subconscious and harder to control, and they seem a more credible source when judging a person’s true intentions. Many people know that.

Few (salespeople) consider that when the goal is to be successful in communicating and convincing a client, then the three elements – words, body language, and tone of voice – have to be in sync and express the same message and emotion. If that fails, the person speaking does not seem trustworthy.

Trust is the basis of credibility and persuasion. If you lack trust, the client still hesitates, even when the logic is in favour of closing the deal.

Meta-messages synced with words are one of the main aspects that separate the owners of black belts from everyone else. The principles of meta-messages, as with many other principles that underlie success, are not difficult to understand. However, implementing them correctly can sometimes be a challenge.

Tarmo Tamm

Selliti tegevjuht ja asutaja. "Must vöö müügis" raamatu ja koolitussarja autor.